Q: If you wish to include public buildings as set pieces in your script, will that cost money and require permits to shoot if the script is produced? Would avoidance or substitution of any signage make any difference?
A: First let me just advise that you let the producer worry about this. Your script WILL get changed along the way to production, to accommodate various production considerations, just like this one. Set your scenes where you think they should be set and don't worry about how the production will accomplish it. That's someone else's job.
To answer your question, I first have to address a semantic point. There are “public buildings” and there are buildings that are “open to the public”. There's a major difference.
A “public building” is a structure that's owned by the public (i.e., the government). Examples are The White House, the Library of Congress, the Federal Building, state capitol buildings, courthouses, police stations, etc. Merely showing such structures in a film doesn't require a permit, but actually shooting in such places typically involves permits, security, and quite a bit of hoop-jumping. In many instances, security or other considerations may lead the government to place serious restrictions on access to such facilities. But, under the first amendment, a complete ban would be very difficult for the government to enforce.
On the other hand, buildings that are open to the public, but which are privately owned (like banks, malls, grocery stores, and office buildings) will also frequently require government-issued permits… but more importantly, you'll need permission from the owner of the building. It is likely that those owners will expect to be paid a fee for use of the location. Private property owners have the right to deny access to the location altogether, and therefore the right to demand payment when granting such access.
Substitute signage probably won't make a difference if the building itself is easily recognizable… and since we're dealing with this question, I have to presume we're not talking about generic-looking office buildings.
So, short-answer made long… Yes, it will cost money, require permits, and there's really no way around it.
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