Recent press reports may have left readers with the idea that the EU is about to legislate to “ban” or “censor” holiday snaps of famous monuments and art works and/or make it illegal to upload them to Facebook or Instagram.
There is no such legal proposal on the table.
Even if there were, it would require the agreement not only of MEPs but of a large majority of Member States, most of which, like the UK, currently apply “freedom of panorama”. That principle allows anyone to publish, even for commercial ends, images of public places, including the buildings and public art works permanently located in those places.
Some other Member States, including France and Belgium, have laws which restrict – usually to non-commercial purposes – the use of such images without prior authorisation.
But they do not seek to ban people from taking photos for their own pleasure. Neither is there any evidence that tourists are being dragged through French or Belgian courts simply for uploading holiday photos to their Facebook page, as the reports suggest would be the case if similar rules were extended EU-wide.
A general review which will culminate in European Commission proposals to update EU copyright law for the digital age is in progress.
As part of the review, a German MEP proposed that freedom of panorama should be stipulated everywhere in the EU.
Her colleagues on a European Parliament committee disagreed and instead voted that, across the EU, “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.”
But the European Parliament as a whole has yet to vote. And when it does, it will adopt only a “non-legislative resolution”: in effect a non-binding recommendation.
It will then be for the European Commission to put forward formal proposals to revise copyright law.
In turn, the Commission’s proposals will need agreement not only by the Parliament but also by a large majority of EU Member States. That is the way the EU works. European laws are proposed by the European Commission but only take effect if agreed, usually after amendment, by elected MEPs and – by a large majority – elected national Ministers.
It is of course perfectly fair for the media to draw attention to ideas put forward by a European Parliament committee.
But some of the headlines scream about an “absurd EU law” and “EU proposals”. Would British journalists ever describe as “an (absurd) British law” a non-binding resolution on which the UK Parliament had not even voted? Or call the self-generated position of a single Commons committee “UK proposals” or “UK government proposals”? They have done, roughly, the EU-level equivalent of that in the reports below.
There are many EU issues in the news at the moment but several UK newspapers still found room for a scare story suggesting that an “EU proposal” could mean “holiday snaps breach copyright” (Telegraph), “make sharing photographs of copyrighted landmarks illegal ” (Independent) and even that “TAKING photographs of the London Eye and the Angel of the North could soon be banned if the meddling European Union (EU) gets their (sic) way.” (Express). The Times meanwhile went with “How ‘absurd’ EU copyright law threatens to censor holiday snaps.” The Mail chose “‘Absurd’ new EU law could mean you’ll face legal action for taking pictures of famous landmarks.”
Update 14 July 2015: The European Parliament plenary on 9 July duly rejected by a large majority the committee amendment in favour of limiting freedom of panorama. Several newspapers reported this as if a major and imminent threat had been averted – “Holiday snaps saved” trumpeted the Daily Telegraph, for example. As explained above, this was only ever about one parliamentary committee’s view on a non-legislative report, about commercial use and not holiday snaps.