UK at risk of losing Freedom of Panorama

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.