Tower Bridge view at dawn, censored to demonstrate the effect of removing the Freedom of Panorama exception. Original and censored version both by Colin, licensed CC BY-SA.

Street photography in Europe and Freedom of Panorama

On 9 July 2015, the European Parliament will vote on whether to abolish our right to freely take and share photographs, videos and drawings of buildings and works of public art.

Owen Blacker
Jul 6, 2015 · 7 min read

Please note: The vote was earlier today (9 July 2015) and the offending text has been removed from the report; I shall write a fuller update shortly.

What’s the background again?

In 2014, German Pirate Party MEP Julia Reda was tasked with a review of the Copyright Directive (2001/29/EC). She recommended liberalising and harmonising a bunch of things, including reconciling the fragmented state of Freedom of Panorama shown in this map, to allow a unified right to take and use photos of cultural works located in public spaces — buildings, sculptures and public art.

Freedom of Panorama rights across Europe. Green indicates territories with a right to Freedom of Panorama, with lighter green countries providing FoP only over images of buildings, not other works. Yellow territories have FoP for non-commercial use only and red countries have no FoP in their laws. Map by King of Hearts and others, licensed CC BY-SA.

My article Freedom of Panorama is under attack (21 June 2015) gives a full background on the case and its players.

At the moment, France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Italy and Greece have an absolute copyright over these works in public spaces, most EU countries have an absolute right to take photos and create drawings and a few places are somewhere in between.

Reda’s initial report proposed turning the whole map dark green:

46. Calls on the EU legislator to ensure that the use of photographs, video footage or other images of works which are permanently located in public places is permitted;

After debate in the Legal Affairs committee (JURI), amendment nº 421 by French centrist MEP Jean-Marie Cavada was passed — against the recommendations of three advisory committees — that changed this text to reverse its meaning and turning the whole map red or yellow:

46. 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;

But what would that change mean?

Royal Castle in Warsaw. As Jan Bogusławski, architect of the post-WW2 reconstruction project, died in 1982, his copyright will expire 1 January 2053. Photo by Halibutt, licensed CC BY-SA.
Copyright on the Eiffel Tower has expired. Since a 1990 court case, however, its lighting displays are considered “original visual creations”, thus this image is censored due to French FoP laws. Photo by Maximillian Puhane, whited out by SPQRobin, licensed CC BY-SA.
The Little Mermaid statue in Copenhagen was created by Edvard Eriksen, who died in 1959, thus is in copyright until 1 January 2034. Photo by Agamitsudo, licensed CC BY-SA.
Pesti srácok, a monument to the children fighters of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Created by Győrfi Lajos (born 1960), this statue will be under copyright until 75 years after his death. Photo by Tgr, licensed CC BY-SA.
“Saltimbanques” in Luxembourg’s Place du Théâtre, by Bénédicte Weis (born 1949), will remain under copyright until 75 years after his death. Photo by Lantus, free use.
Tančící dům in Prague by Vlado Milunić (born 1941) with Frank Gehry (born 1929), will remain under copyright until 75 years after Milunić’s death. Photo by Hans Peter Schaefer, blacked out by Aktron, both licensed CC BY-SA.
Monument to the Murdered Jews of Europe, designed by Peter Eisenman (born 1932), will be under copyright until 75 years after his death. Photo by JoJan, blacked out and labelled “copyright” by WolfgangRieger, both licensed CC BY.
The Vienna International Centre (1979, Staber) and Reichsbrücke (1980, Popper/Kotz) in Vienna. Staber died in 2005, so the VIC is under copyright until 1 January 2081. Photo by Hubertl, blanked out by Agruwie, both licensed CC BY-SA.

Rather than allowing everyone to take and publish photographs of buildings and monuments in public places — as celebrated in Wiki Loves Monuments every year, as well as many, many books with author-supplied photographs — full permissions, clearances and royalties would need to be negotiated for videos, photos, paintings or drawings with any potential commercial use, or only authorised images could be used, again with royalties to be paid.

As an example, the family of Edvard Eriksen, sculptor of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen (under copyright until 2034), is notoriously litigious; newspapers have been fined thousands of euros for unauthorised printing of photographs of his statue.

Similarly, The Atomium — the national monument of Belgium — is copyrighted until 2076, with André Waterkeyn’s heirs also known for being litigious rightsholders.

The licensing policy of the Wikimedia Foundation, the non-profit organisation that runs the Wikipedia projects, requires that each project recognise the limitations of copyright law. The English Wikipedia’s policy on non-free content explicitly only allows images on licences that meet Wikipedia’s definition of “free” use, disallowing images that are only available for non-commercial use; the Catalan and Italian policies are similar. By comparison, the Spanish and Hungarian Wikipedias have a policy of only using Free images. Across Europe, most Wikipedia images depicting public art would be lost.

As someone who contributes to the Wikipedia projects quite often, these are the first areas I think of. But the effects are not limited to there; the status of existing books published without such clearances would become unclear; and it would become very much more difficult and more expensive to publish books illustrating architecture and public art — or even artists’ sketchbooks depicting them.

Despite these effects, such a measure would not raise any significant quantity of money for creators — and it would be very hard to argue that an architect or an artist commissioned to create a piece of public-space art should receive royalties in the same way as musicians or authors do, for example.

Of the 7 EU countries where architects and visual artists earn the highest incomes, 6 have full and unrestricted Freedom of Panorama. Creators don’t make these works ignorant of the destination — it is not the public space entering the artist’s atelier, as it were, but the artist’s work being presented into the public realm.

Right. So where is all of this now?

Marietje Schaake MEP. Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, licensed CC BY.

Obviously, in the last two weeks there have been meetings among MEPs and lobbying from various organisations — including lobbying by the Wikimedia Foundation (for which I have been one of the people helping with strategy discussions). Julia Reda blogged to explain the benefits of freedom of panorama and journalist Glyn Moody wrote about the “licences for everything” mentality that led us to this problem.

At the same time, there has been a grassroots campaign with thousands of people contacting their MEPs and over 300,000 people signing the petition on Groups representing architects and photographers, supposedly the main beneficiaries of this plan, have expressed their concerns in public about the effects of removing this freedom — and not just in the UK but across Europe.

One result of this political pressure is that Dutch social-liberal MEP Marietje Schaake has garnered enough support to introduce an amendment to restore the original text. Another is that there will be a “split vote”, to remove paragraph 46 from the report — removing Jean-Marie Cavada’s text, along with any mention of Freedom of Panorama altogether.

Perceiving that he has lost the argument, Cavada has written to MEPs asking them to accept a compromise — to delete his wording from the report but to reject Schaake’s amendment. Also, GESAC, a group of collecting societies, published a highly misleading leaflet about the issue, with claims that were rapidly debunked.

Wikipedia’s internal newsletter Signpost this week contained another piece by James Heald with an update for editors.

What should we do about it now?

The most effective actions at the moment are still relatively simple — signing the petition on will give a useful indication of the strength of feeling on the matter.

The most important thing for EU citizens to do, however, is to contact our MEPs and let them know how we would like them to vote. Big organisations like GESAC will be lobbying our elected representatives; we have to make sure our voices are heard too.

There are two things we want to ask of our MEPs:

  1. Please support amendment A8–0209/3 by Marietje Schaake, to restore the meaning of the original text, as endorsed by IMCO and ITRE.
  2. Should Schaake’s amendment fail, then please vote to remove paragraph 46 from the report altogether, as even Jean-Marie Cavada himself is requesting now. is a website by non-profit mySociety that makes it easy for UK residents to contact their elected representatives. Disclaimer: I’m a director and trustee of mySociety. Screenshot taken by me; website code and images are licensed under the GNU Affero GPL.

UK residents can contact their MEPs through WriteToThem, where you just have to enter your postcode to get a list of them. Other countries’ residents will have to go through the European Parliament’s site, but there are email addresses on the Parliament’s MEP search engine, which allows you to narrow things down by parliamentary constituency; and Wikipedia has a page listing MEPs by country, translated into some of the other EU languages if you hit the links along the left-hand side.

Some tips on writing effective letters to our representatives:

  • Be polite and respectful — especially if you’re writing to an MEP from a party you don’t usually agree with!
  • Make it personal; the more you can talk about your own experience and why this matters to you, to make your letter different from anybody else’s, the more impact you will have.
  • Mention colleagues from the same party as the MEP you’re writing to. Wikimedia Commons has pages that detail the responses people have received back from their MEPs in Britain, Spain and the Czech Republic, for example.
  • And always follow up on their response — either thanking them for being receptive or politely explaining that you’re unhappy with their response.

Again, thanks for reading.

Now go write your MEPs and tell everyone you know — the vote is on Thursday, there’s no time to waste!

This article is dedicated to the public domain under the terms of the Creative Commons Zero licence. Please translate, copy, excerpt, share, disseminate and otherwise spread it far and wide. You don’t need to ask me, you don’t need to tell me. Just do it!


Perspectives on Visual Storytelling

Owen Blacker

Written by

Mainly-gay, mainly-Welsh political geek. Ad agency technologist; mySociety founder, director & trustee; Open Rights Group founder & director; Wikipedian. He/him



Perspectives on Visual Storytelling