Working in the press, journalists are used to a regular influx of stories that seem to defy logic and common sense. After all, that’s often the reason they make the news in the first place.
But when the apparently senseless news item is a public initiative, government decision or new law I feel especially compelled to speak up about it.
This week it was reported that members of the European Parliament have proposed a change to copyright law that would ban people from posting pictures of public buildings on social media websites such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
The revised law would cover all those landmark buildings – the Eiffel Tower, St Paul’s Cathedral, Sagrada Familia in Barcelona – that have been immortalised time and again in billions of holiday snaps.
It would mean that, say you took the dreaded ‘selfie’ of yourself standing in front of an iconic building like the Leaning Tower of Pisa, you would have to either black out the tower before publishing the picture on Facebook, or get prior consent from the owner of the building’s copyright. Otherwise you could be accused of falling foul of the law.
This seems utterly bonkers to me. It raises so many questions. After all, who or what owns the copyright of a public building and should anyone be entitled to it anyway? Particularly if, as in the case of the Eiffel Tower and the London Eye, the building or structure was constructed in the main as a tourist attraction, with the general public in mind, and in the full knowledge that the building would irrevocably change the city view for anyone who gazes on it.
Ultimately, how could anyone ever be entitled to own the copyright of a national skyline? Perhaps in some tightly controlled regimes around the world this might happen, but in democratic 21st century Europe?
It surely couldn’t be the architect, could it? While he might have been responsible for the designs, what about the engineer and developer who also helped get that building off the drawing board and into the public domain? It would cause so many disputes!
In truth, the rules would be so hard to enforce that all these questions are probably a moot point. Most people have such strict privacy settings on Facebook these days that regulators probably wouldn’t find out – although Instagram and Twitter are easier to police.
It is understood that the proposed changes target commercial photographers rather than the general public, but a) there would likely be so many grey areas that ordinary holidaymakers could be caught out, and b) why is there the need to punish jobbing photographers trying to do perfectly legitimate business working with the urban and other pictorial contexts available to them? Should watercolour painters be banned from selling works of art that depict, say, St Paul’s Cathedral?
By way of background, this attempt to reform EU copyright laws has been made by MEP Julia Reda who possibly didn’t intend any controversy, but nonetheless sparked it by issuing a report calling on the EU to “ensure that that use of photographs, video footage, or other images of works that are permanently located in public places are permitted”.
There are already restrictions in some EU member states, including France, Belgium and Italy – in France, for example, it is illegal to publish a photograph of the Eiffel Tower by night as the operating body retains copyright for the lighting effects added in 2003.
But countries including the UK, Spain and Germany currently have “freedom of panorama”, an exemption in EU copyright law that allows people to freely publish photographs of buildings, cityscapes and other national landmarks.
It seems to me that all “panoramas” – including the buildings that appear in them – should be able to be freely reproduced in images with no questions asked.
If an important government or royal building, such as Number 10 Downing Street or Buckingham Palace, wished to retain privacy and control over what images of the building circulate, it should be up to them to devise their own legal restrictions and communicate these to the general public. But this should be the exception to the rule, not the rule itself.
Can you imagine if such rules were imposed in Dubai, and people had to black out the Burj Al Arab or Palm Jumeirah from their holiday snaps? What would that do for tourism in the emirate?
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