EU copyright law proposal stirs debate among professional and amatuer photographers

Opposition is growing to a European Parliament non-legislative proposal to ban photographers from commercially using photos of landmarks and public places unless they have permission from copyright holders. The proposal will be voted on by MEPs on Thursday in Strasbourg as part of a broader report on reform of EU copyright laws.

British Liberal Democrat MEP Catherine Bearder, along with a group of other MEPs, has tabled an amendment to scrap the controversial proposal and ensure Freedom of Panorama is protected.

It would replace the current text with the following:

"Recognises the right to use photographs, video footage or other images of works which are permanently located in public places."

Under the EU plan, members of the public would only be able to upload the uncensored photograph with prior consent from the author.

These are restrictions that already exist in some member states of the EU, including France, Belgium and Italy, but in an attempt to harmonise copyright law, Brussels could extend this to other countries as early as next month

The UK, along with countries such as Spain and Germany, currently enjoys “freedom of panorama”, a provision in copyright law that allows people to publish photographs of modern buildings or public art installations and use any way they like without infringing copyright.

However, where this clause does not exist, restrictions extend even to educational, not-for-profit websites such as Wikipedia. The website’s page for the Atomium building in Belgium, for example, is illustrated by a silhouetted shot of the building, due to copyright restrictions.

In France, it is illegal to publish a photograph of the Eiffel Tower by night since the tower’s illuminations added in 2003 retain copyright, even though the copyright for the structure itself, built in 1889, has long since expired. Daytime photographs are acceptable, but prior permission must be obtained from operating company Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (SETE), which owns the rights, for lit-up images.

The attempt to reform EU copyright laws is led by German MEP Julia Reda.

In a statement to parliament, her report calls for the EU to “ensure that the use of photographs, video footage, or other images of works which are permanently located in public places are permitted”.

However, a number of MEPs are attempting to introduce a non-commercial clause into the freedom of panorama rules.

The laws would primarily affect professional photographers using images on a commercial basis, however, there remains a "grey area" that could affect personal images posted on Facebook, Instagram or websites that generate revenue.

Michael Maggs, Chair of Wikimedia UK, said “Many of us have cameras and computers built into our phones. 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.”

A spokesperson for the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA) said the institution was concerned that “the well intentioned proposals… would instead have negative implications, and represent a potentially damaging restriction of the debate about architecture and public space”.

Further comment came from UKIP MEP Julia Reid, who said: "This amendment proposed by Jean-Marie Cavada, a French MEP, would even stop visitors to London posting pictures of the Battle of Britain War Memorial on Facebook."

Her party colleague Gerard Batten said: "This is typical incompetent, ill-thought out and unnecessary legislation. It will destroy an explicit British freedom guaranteed in our copyright legislation for over 100 years. Until now, everyone in Britain has been free to stand in a public place and take photographs of any monument or building they chose."

By Martin Banks

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