UK at risk of losing Freedom of Panorama

  • June 11, 2015
Image shows the Brussels skyline with the Atomium blacked out
Absence of freedom of panorama in Belgium means we cannot show an image of Atomium without being in breach of copyright

Every day, millions of Europeans are breaking copyright law. Due to an obscure rule known as Freedom of Panorama, those innocent snapshots of modern buildings you’ve taken in countries such as France and Belgium are breaches of copyright. While the UK has this freedom, we are at risk of losing it in the ongoing copyright reform negotiations taking place in the European Parliament.

A report on copyright reform by Julia Reda MEP is attempting to harmonise EU copyright laws and to introduce UK-style freedom of panorama across the EU. In a statement in favour of common sense, the report calls for the Parliament to: “ensure that the use of photographs, video footage or other images of works which are permanently located in public places are permitted.”

However, there are a number of MEPs attempting to introduce a non-commercial clause into the freedom of panorama rules which would mean that freedom of panorama is useless. In some cases it would mean that posting your holiday snaps on Facebook or using them to illustrate Wikipedia articles is illegal.

“Many of us have cameras and computers built into our phones,” said Michael Maggs, Chair of Wikimedia UK. “Digital photography and technological improvements make it easy to share our images online. This non-commercial exception to freedom of panorama not only prevents Europeans from sharing their content, it removes existing freedoms from UK citizens.”

In the UK and other countries, such as Germany, the right of freedom of panorama is protected, so those photos you’ve taken in public spaces are fine. But other countries such as tourist hotspots France and Greece, do not have an equivalent right. There, any unapproved photograph of a modern public building is an automatic infringement of the architect’s copyright in the building design. Taking and uploading your own photos of those buildings is unlawful unless approved in writing by the copyright holder.

It becomes even stranger in some cases. For example, you can share a photo of the Eiffel Tower because of its age – but only if it is taken during the day. If the photo is at night, the lighting is considered a separate installation and falls foul of Freedom of Panorama.

Worryingly, it’s not just holiday snaps where this becomes an issue. Wikipedia, a website many of us use every day, cannot even use these images for free educational purposes.

“The problem we have today is that many Wikipedia articles about buildings and monuments cannot be appropriately illustrated when the structure is located in a country without Freedom of Panorama,” Maggs said. “It’s important that the European Parliament takes care of freedom of panorama. We support the very long-standing right of UK citizens and visitors to these shores to take photographs of buildings in public places and to do what they want with their own photos without having to seek permission from any third party commercial rights holder.”

The current European Parliament review of copyright is ongoing, with reforms expected to follow soon.

11 thoughts on “UK at risk of losing Freedom of Panorama”

  1. Thanks for posting the link – interesting development and it will be interesting to see where this leads.

    I would have to add that some of this is at least partly self-inflicted on the part of the Wikipedia community, for two key reasons:

    1. Wikipedia chooses not to accept “NC” licenses. I’ve come across this barrier a few times when looking at other publicly licensed works. As far as I can see there is no real reason why Wikipedia shouldn’t accept this work – use on Wikipedia itself would not fall foul of “NC” so it is only the on-usage that is the potential problem and that could presumably be resolved through some clever tagging in the API. Who knows maybe this development could prompt such a wider debate within Wikimedia.

    2. Most commercial websites (eg facebook, ancestry) take the view that they will only take down copy-vios if the rightholder in question complains about it. As such they are unlikely to feel any practical impact from this even if FoP does become NC. This is a huge gulf away from the Wikipedia approach which, from what I can tell, imposes on itself a far stricter purist approach than any other internet site. This is largely the choice of the Wikipedia community. A more balanced approach could solve a lot of problems like this and free up a ton of other information that could be of huge value to the community. I’m not suggesting we go all the way that facebook has done but there appears to be plenty of scope for us to moderate our approach.

  2. Thanks for your reply Andrew. I agree with you in many ways. There was a vote this morning and the result was that the following amendment was agreed:

    “16. Considers that the commercial use of photographs, video footage or other images of works which are permanently located in physical public places should always be subject to prior authorisation from the authors or any proxy acting for them.”

    This is pretty bad news, although not yet binding at this stage. If you’re keen to help us plan how to deal with this, please take a look at this page and join us.

  3. Andrew: Wikipedia has the intention to create a free encyclopedia. The “free” refers to the situation that the content must be re-usable without limitations in whatever kind. NonCommercial would restrict the re-usage very much, in such way that you then can’t speak any longer of a free encyclopedia. Read also:

    The success of Wikipedia comes also from the situation that the contents may be used without limitations.

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