The right to use pictures taken in a public place is under threat by a European Parliament proposal for the harmonization of copyright laws across the region. Buried in a complex set of amendments is the idea that the automatic Freedom of Panorama be removed from those countries that maintain it, so that copyright holders of permanent artworks and buildings will need to authorize commercial use of pictures that include their works. On the face of it that doesn't sound too bad, only that professionals who use locations with copyrighted buildings and art as a background will need to seek permissions. However, in reality it could affect anyone who posts images of copyrighted works on social media or websites that also feature advertising.

At the moment individual countries across Europe decide how they implement the Freedom of Panorama, and how far that freedom extends. The proposal suggests that that choice be taken away and that the commission dictates that all countries in the union suspend the freedom. The section of the report this is contained within states that the commission '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 authorization from the authors or any proxy acting for them.'

What would suspending Freedom of Panorama mean?

Full Freedom of Panorama means that anyone is allowed to take photographs that include copyrighted buildings, permanent sculptures or artwork and use those pictures for commercial gain. Suspending that freedom would mean that a picture of a fashion model with a city skyline as a background would require the photographer to gain permission from the copyright holders of all copyrighted buildings visible in the image before the picture could be used.

It would also mean that a tourist taking a picture of his wife against the same skyline would need to go through the same process before that picture could be loaded to social media sites, such as Facebook or Twitter, as those sites carry advertising that is attached to the content of its pages. It would also mean that sites such as Wikipedia would need to remove an estimated 40,000 images that contained copyrighted buildings.

The London skyline showing buildings that are protected by copyright and which would require permissions to be granted if the proposal became law. © User:Colin / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

Some European countries already have limited freedom of panorama, including France. Famously, the Eiffel Tower may be photographed during the day and anything can be done with the pictures, but use of pictures taken at night requires permission from the Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel because the lighting display is copyrighted. Similar cases exist across France, Italy, Bulgaria, Belgium and Albania where copyrighted buildings can't be included in pictures that will be used commercially. Wikimedia has published a guide to how individual countries implement Freedom of Panorama, and what the implications are for people photographing in those places.

A map of Europe showing how different countries regulate including copyrighted buildings and permanent artworks in commercial images.

Dark Green: OK, including public interiors

Light Green: OK

Yellow: OK for buildings only

Red: Not OK

Blue: Public interiors are OK, but schools, opera buildings, entrance halls of businesses, and museums are not public places for the purpose of Dutch law, while railway stations are.

Source: Wikimedia Commons

According to Amateur Photographer magazine in the UK, a spokesman from the office of Jean-Marie Cavada, the French MEP who proposed the changes, says that no one has ever been prosecuted for copyright infringement in the countries that have no Freedom of Panorama, and that the law would not impact people posting on social media sites. This suggests that the theory and the practice work in different ways, and that laws have been adopted that are not enforced. The fear though is that when spread further across the region they could be enforced if copyright owners complain by suing photographers and members of the public.

The proposed change is some way from becoming law, and will have to go through a lengthy process to get onto the statute books, but there remains a chance that it will succeed. Photographers in the EU are urged to contact their MEP to make sure they are aware of what the changes could mean, and to sign an online petition at Change.org. The report the changes are contained within will come to vote on Thursday 9th July.

For more background information read a debate between two MEPs on opposite sides of the fence on the European Parliament website and a press release from the Parliament that covers the subject at the end.