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 wrotethe 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.

Doh!

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.