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24th Sep 2018

Focus

Freedom to take photos divides MEPs

  • Could the EU effectively ban tourist photos? (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Not a second seems to go by on Amsterdam's central Dam Square without a tourist taking a photo.

A woman is photographing a pair of fiddlers, two young women use a selfie-stick, a man takes a picture of a woman with a pigeon in her hand.

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  • The Netherlands has implemented freedom of panorama (Photo: Peter Teffer)

Many tourists also take pictures of the square's royal palace, but also of Amsterdam's newer buildings. They are free to do so, including of buildings which are still protected by copyright.

But buildings too can be protected by copyright – a fact many people are unaware of.

Several EU countries, including the Netherlands, have adopted a principle called freedom of panorama, which allows you to take photos in public places and do with them what you like.

But a report due to be voted on in the European Parliament Thursday afternoon (9 July) has raised fears that this principle is is “under threat”.

The report, by German MEP Julia Reda, is a non-binding text meant to feed into European Commission legislative proposals on copyright due later this year.

The freedom of panorama principle is causing a scuffle among MEPs.

Reda herself called for the principle to be upheld across the EU - currently the copyright exception is voluntary and not adopted by countries like France, Belgium, and Italy.

Amendment

However, during the vote on amendments in the parliament's legal affairs committee, a majority of committee MEPs supported a change proposed by French Liberal MEP Jean-Marie Cavada.

The amendment reads:

"[The European Parliament] 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”.

If this ever made it into law, it would have wide-ranging implications.

This is because the term "commercial use" has become blurry since the advent of social media. Facebook for example, states in its contract that it may use commercially any photo its users have uploaded .

For Reda, the change to the hard-fought report carrying her name, stings.

She has put forward another amendment. But, at the minimum, she wants Cavada's paragraph deleted.

Reda said she will vote against her own report if it says freedom of panorama needs to be restricted.

Status quo

Meanwhile, the centre-right EPP group, whose committee members had supported Cavada, sent out a press release on Wednesday, to calm those who fear "that the EU is about to legislate to ‘ban’ or ‘censor’ tourist photos of famous monuments, buildings and art work”.

It noted that the four main groups in the European Parliament support the status quo.

But it is the status quo which has led to a situation where citizens are unaware of what they can and cannot share.

“There are some countries in the EU today that don't have freedom of panorama, but nevertheless the ordinary person shares pictures of public buildings without ever thinking about copyright implications”, said Reda.

'It's allowed, right?'

And indeed, in Amsterdam, one tourist expressed confusion when confronted with the idea of copyright-protected buildings.

Mary Khurtsidze from Georgia was walking on Dam Square with a single-lens reflex camera hanging from her neck.

“I will upload the pictures on my Facebook. It's allowed, right?”, she said.

Khurtsidze was not aware that during a previous trip to Paris, different rules applied compared to her current holiday in Amsterdam.

“Nobody told me”, the tourist said.

“If it is not allowed to take pictures, there should be some signs outside. Am I in trouble?”.

No, she is not. No matter if the Netherlands has implemented freedom of panorama or not - the architect's copyright on the 17th century town hall-turned royal palace has long expired.

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