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In the past week, the BBC has taken heat for its understanding of, and respect for, copyright.

Criticism of the BBC started when Andy Mabbett complained to the BBC about photographs of the Tottenham riots being published with little more than a note that they were "from Twitter".

The BBC's response?

Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain.

Such a response would have been humorous if it wasn't real. But it was, and not surprisingly, it only attracted more attention to the BBC's practices.

On Monday, the BBC's Chris Hamilton was forced to backtrack on behalf of the news organization. Admitting that the argument that photographs are public domain simply because they're available on Twitter "was wrong," he wrote "the response doesn't represent BBC policy".

Issue resolved, right? Not exactly. Hamilton went on:

In terms of permission and attribution, we make every effort to contact people who've taken photos we want to use in our coverage and ask for their permission before doing so.

However, in exceptional situations, where there is a strong public interest and often time constraints, such as a major news story like the recent Norway attacks or rioting in England, we may use a photo before we've cleared it.


The BBC's stance seems questionable legally, and it won't be entirely surprising when this flagrant disregard for the rights of photographers (amateur or not) results in a lawsuit.

But, in my opinion, the problems with the BBC's stance go well beyond just copyright:

  • It's hypocritical for an organization to believe that it can work for the 'public interest' by trampling individual rights, as respect for and protection of individual rights is fundamental to the public interest. 

    For news organizations that rely heavily on the public trust, a disconnect on this issue is very, very worrisome.

  • When the BBC is unable to contact a photographer, or to obtain his or her cooperation, it may be impossible to present photographs in an accurate context. A picture is worth a thousand words, but those words are meaningful only when the context of that particular photograph is understood.
  • There is always the possibility that a photograph has been doctored, or is 'fake' (eg. from a different event, staged, or misrepresented).

The bottom line is that using photographs without permission is simply bad form regardless of the circumstances. It not only compromises the BBC's moral position, but also potentially the quality of its reporting.

When service companies treat their customers and vendors like crap because it's expedient, they shouldn't be surprised when their reputation suffers as a result. News organizations should have the same expectation.

Social media is a powerful tool for organizations like the BBC, and thanks to services like Facebook and Twitter, citizens can interact with the news media in ways never before possible.

The news organizations that will succeed with social media and improve their standing will be the ones which recognize that the medium is more than just a source of free labor and free content.

Patricio Robles

Published 18 August, 2011 by Patricio Robles

Patricio Robles is a tech reporter at Econsultancy. Follow him on Twitter.

2419 more posts from this author

Comments (11)

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mick maguire

" It not only compromises the BBC's moral position, but also potentially the quality of its reporting."

The quality of Auntie Beebs online reporting, not to mention grammar and spelling is atrocious... are you suggesting this might improve it? ;)

As a UK ex-pat I used to be very proud of the BBC, but these days I cringe when I read the biased opinions and poor quality articles offered on this most global of platforms.

about 5 years ago


Dillan Gandhi

You are suggesting they should apply the same editorial practices to breaking news items, as they would to regular/pre-planned news items.

That is not how journalism works: the rule-of-thumb has always been to give greater importance to delivering the best story and information, not sitting behind a desk emailing permission slips back-and-forth.

To the eventual idiot that attempts to sue the BBC, good luck with that.

about 5 years ago


James O'Neill

I think you need to type "Copyright designs and patents act" into a search engine, and look at section 30 which covers the use of photographs for news reporting the important bit starts at subsection 2. Subsection 1 does talk about things which have been made available to the public.

"(2) Fair dealing with a work (other than a photograph) for the purpose of reporting current events does not infringe any copyright in the work provided that (subject to subsection (3)) it is accompanied by a sufficient acknowledgement..

(3)No acknowledgement is required in connection with the reporting of current events by means of a sound recording, film [F3 or broadcast where this would be impossible for reasons of practicality or otherwise].

It would appear that the lack of understanding of copyright might not lie at the BBC.

about 5 years ago


Phil Karasinsky

In the part of the CDPA quoted by James, (2) is irrelevant to this case as it says "other than a photograph".

(3) isn't even addressing copyright, but rather the Moral Right for attribution. It doesn't say that the use of the photographer is not an infringement when used in newspapers, but rather that the right for attribution is sometimes inapplicable.

about 5 years ago



So let me get this straight: Someone publishing a photograph in a public forum actually has an expectation that this photograph will NOT be used by other people participating in that forum?

Methinks someone doesn't know how the internet works. Methinks someone doesn't understand human nature. Methinks if you want to protect your "intellectual property" from those who might want to use it, the last thing you should do with it is send it out to the world.

Did the BBC discover those photos from Andy Mabbett's twitter account, or from them being reposted somewhere else?

about 5 years ago


Paul Murricane

Surely if someone takes a photo, and then publishes it onTwitter, they're deciding that that photo should be publicly available. If they don't want it used without acknowledgement by a news organisation, isn't it their responsibility to add a line saying 'must be credited to...' . That way the public gets what it is entitled to - the graphic truth - and the owner of the photo keeps control of the entitlement to the photo. This only becomes an issue once they've decided to publish the photo in the first place - by putting it online. That's the critical decision, not the news organisation's.

about 5 years ago


internet fax

"It's hypocritical for an organization to believe that it can work for the 'public interest' by trampling individual rights, as respect for and protection of individual rights is fundamental to the public interest."

wow I couldn't agree more. In many ways we are still in the wild west of the internet and a lot of the big questions regarding copyright infringement, privacy and net neutrality still have a long way to go before we can reach an amicable consensus.

about 5 years ago


Joe K

Methinks I expect better from the BBC, Dave. Well, used to.

Still, if this comment gets posted, it will mean that the BBC, through Ian McDonald, gave someone who was 'banned' as a consequence of draconian moderation of social media, an opportunity to comment at one remove. That's a *slight* improvement...

about 5 years ago


Andrew Liddell, Ecommerce Business MGR at Personal

Some photographers and reporters need to shelf their ego's and be happy that one of the words most visited sites has decided to use their photo.

I honestly cannot believe what I'm reading! Take your head out of your 'hind' and work at the BBC as a junior for a few weeks, then pass judgement!

about 5 years ago



Why are you picking up on this but not the Daily Mail's photo theft? (See http://boingboing.net/2011/08/16/daily-mail-rips-off-my-wifes-photo-after-asking-permission-and-being-turned-down.html)

If I'm wrong, and you have reported on this with due criticism, fair enough. But it would be nice to have it confirmed that Econsultancy do not select stories based on their power to damage your commercial success, as picking on BBC while overlooking similar story from a large private media group can look like that.

about 5 years ago


Clare Brace

I suspect that this wont be the last time the BBC or other media groups use social networks to source content for broadcasts - so -
what is going to be put in place to save the BBC being sued every time they do this?

If the BBC is going to deliver user generated news, I don't need to watch the news at ten any more - I'll just Google 'UK riots 2011' and watch the latest video's on YouTube.

about 5 years ago

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