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Travel

"Freedom of Panorama": Will the EU ban landmark photography?

In most European countries, taking photographs of public buildings and artworks and posting them online has been allowed. But now a proposed new EU law would infringe on this "freedom of panorama."

Will tourists soon be prohibited from posting online snapshots of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the London Eye, or the Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona? German politician Julia Reda fears that might soon be the case.

Julia Reda is the only member of the European Parliament from Germany’s Pirate Party. At the European Parliament, she’s involved in proposals for intellectual property reform. Rada was commissioned by the parliament to write a summary report on copyright law, which will be submitted to the EU Commission.

Current law

Julia Reda, Copyright: picture alliance/Geisler-Fotopress

Advocate for freedom of panorama: Julia Reda represents the German Pirate Party at the European Parliament

Freedom of panorama exists in Germany, as in much of Europe. That means anyone may take a photograph of a public building or work of art and use them in any way they wish - even for commercial purposes such as calendars and postcards. What matters is that the picture was taken in a public space.

But not every country in the EU has the same rules. In France there is no general freedom of panorama. For example, images of the Eiffel Tower illuminated at night are protected by copyright, and photos of it can be published only with permission. In neighboring Belgium, permission is required to publish pictures of the Atomium sculpture, a Brussels landmark.

Julia Reda, who favors loosening restrictions on copyright, wants to expand freedom of panorama to all EU countries. She has presented her report and suggestions to the European Parliament for discussion.

Misguided reforms

Jean-Marie Cavada (on the right); Copyright: Picture Alliance/dpa/X. de Torres

Opponent of freedom of panorama: Jean-Marie Cavada (on the right), EU delegate for the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe

Julia Reda’s draft report has drawn substantial criticism. Member of Parliament Jean-Marie Cavada, a former television journalist, has offered the most important counter-suggestion. Cavada proposes that all commercial use of photographs or videos of permanently installed art and public buildings would require permission from the copyright holder. With support from Christian Democrats, Social Democrats, and Liberals, Cavada’s proposal has majority backing in the parliamentary legal affairs committee.

But public criticism of Cavada’s proposal is mounting. The German photographers’ association Freelens says getting a permit for every photograph is an "impossible endeavor." On its website, Freelens wrote, "This could spell the end of professional photography in public space." The association also says that it would not only be professional photographers who would be affected.

Julia Reda also warns that the proposed changes could mean that ordinary vacationers will need to scrutinize their snapshots to make sure that they don’t contain protected images. Not to mention that copyright law holds further complications. Copyright expires 70 years after the death of the creator of the work - in this case, the artist or architect. So amateur photographers would need to gather a great deal of information before posting snapshots onto platforms like Facebook, which make commercial use of posted images.

Wikipedia and travel blogs under fire

The Atomium in Brussels, Copyright: picture alliance/AA

The Atomium in Brussels was created in 1958 for the World’s Fair, so the artwork is still subject to copyright

The free online encyclopedia Wikipedia is also concerned about the potential negative impact. "This would limit freedoms that have been in existence for 100 years," says Dimitar Dimitrov. He has spent two years in Brussels representing the Wikipedia Foundation, which supports Wikipedia and other projects. Wikipedia alone has thousands of photos of public buildings and works of art.

In protest, Wikipedia authors blacked out photos of the Louvre in Paris and Hamburg’s Elbe Philharmonic. They are calling for the preservation of freedom of panorama. Dimitrov says that even restrictions that apply solely to commercial use will cause immense legal upheaval. It’s not always easy to determine what is commercial in the Internet. "It’s not only the big platforms, but also small blogs that display advertising to cover their operating costs," he says.

Michael Hirschler of the German Federation of Journalists (DJV) also sees a conflict brewing. "In Germany, this law would likely lead to problems immediately," he says. In Germany, attorneys frequently issue cease and desist for violation of copyright. If copyright law is tightened, that could have substantial ramifications in Germany. "The members of parliament haven’t considered the harm they will do to photographers," says Hirschler.

The DJV has advocated freedom of panorama for years. Michael Hirschler hopes the proposed passage will be amended or removed entirely. He has the support of photographers and Wikipedia. More than 4,200 people have signed an open letter on Wikipedia’s homepage. At the time of writing, an online petition has more than 50,000 signatures.

Damage control

The office of the French Member of Parliament Jean-Marie Cavada insists that the purpose of the law is not to prosecute ordinary internet users: "Mr. Cavada never intended to require payment from users or to limit their online freedom." His office says the point is to ensure that platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Flickr provide fair compensation to artists.

In any case, Cavada’s proposals would have a long road ahead of them to become EU law. The proposals go to vote before the European Parliament on July 9, 2015. That vote will establish the parliament’s official position. The final proposal for a new EU law will be submitted to the EU Commission this fall.