Photo by High Contrast, CC BY 3.0 DE.

Photo by High Contrast, CC BY 3.0 DE.

This week, the Wikimedia Foundation submitted comments to the European Commission, urging them to recommend a clear and broad freedom of panorama that would allow people to share images of buildings, sculptures, and monuments that are permanently located in a public space. We also voiced our concerns about the new proposed neighboring right for publishers, which—oddly enough—was included in the same consultation.

Freedom of panorama is essential for Wikipedia’s editors to document the world. Editors illustrate articles with images from Wikimedia Commons including many pictures of buildings and art in public spaces. Sharing images of public spaces is valuable both as a contemporary educational resource and as a primary source for future generations of historians and sociologists. These images provide access to knowledge for European citizens and people throughout the world. This includes students studying architecture or art, tourists preparing for their upcoming travel to foreign country, and citizens who want to experience their cultural heritage but lack the money to travel.

Sharing photographs of their environment and everyday activities via the internet has become a part of life and a cultural norm for European citizens. Any changes to copyright law should take their cues from this widely-accepted cultural norm rather than trying to oppose it. The notion that people cannot share images of buildings and art in the streets of their hometowns is appalling. And because copyright frameworks are not harmonized throughout the EU, citizens of some countries are even more restricted than others in their ability to share photographs.

Several European countries currently don’t have a broad copyright exception that allows people to share images of buildings and three-dimensional art in public spaces. A more consistent—and more permissive—exception would promote and foster the sort of international collaboration necessary for the success of projects like Wikipedia. The EU needs broad freedom of panorama, and it must allows for commercial use of images. The line between commercial and non-commercial use is increasingly hard to discern. Most of the websites and apps that function as public spaces on the internet are privately owned or funded through commercial advertisement. In such a context, the question of whether activity is “commercial” or not is at best complex and at worst impossible to answer. A strong panorama exception that allows for all uses, including commercial ones, would provide tremendous benefit to society without causing real harm to copyright holders. The rights that creators retain in countries that do not have the freedom of panorama largely go unused.

European citizens should be able to collaborate online under consistent copyright rules. Our comments also included a response to the proposal (unrelated to freedom of panorama) to create a new neighboring right for publishers that seeks to protect press content from being reproduced online by third parties. The proposed new right for publishers has been criticized by internet users and authors. The introduction of a new neighboring right for publishers has the potential to interfere with hyperlinking and harm the interconnectedness of the open internet. In its effort to modernize copyright, the European Union should not create unnecessary burdens for intermediary platforms that help users create and share knowledge. Doing so would actually harm both publishers as well as intermediaries. Publishers benefit from the services intermediaries provide, as they refer users to the publishers’ articles and other works. We believe that a secondary copyright for publishers would be a step backwards and undermine the Commission’s efforts to update copyright law for the sake of serving a digital single market.

We appreciate the Commission’s intentions to modernize copyright in Europe and encourage it to think of the needs of European citizens first. Wikimedians in Europe and around the world support freedom of panorama and have recently celebrated positive amendments to the law in France and Belgium. We trust that the Commission will notice this great policy work by our community. We’d encourage you to get involved in the discourse beyond the consultation, too, and show European policymakers that freedom of panorama is important for free knowledge and that European citizens care about it. We’d love to hear from you on our public policy list!

Jan Gerlach, Public Policy Manager
Wikimedia Foundation