This Kat has always marvelled at the ability of social media such as Twitter and FaceBook to provide an almost simaltaneous eye-witness version of newsworthy events. For instance, individuals present at the tragic events in Norway or the riots in England earlier this month could have taken photographs or footage on their mobile phone and uploaded it to their social networking account, where many others could have viewed it. So what happens when media outlets which were not present at these events want to use the photographs or footage? Do normal copyright considerations apply?

The issue has become topical recently owing to an official complaint made by Mr Andy Mabbett to the BBC, claiming that in its coverage of rioting in Tottenham on 6 August 2011 the BBC may have infringed copyright by using photographs from Twitter without permission of the authors and without properly attributing them. The first response by the BBC was a rather surprising statement that:
'Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain. The BBC is aware of copyright issues and is careful to abide by these laws'.
A 'speechless' Mr Mabbett drew attention to the issue and the BBC's response on his personal blog 'Pigsonthewing'. Shortly afterwards, the BBC did an about-face and released a statement in which it admitted that its conclusion above was 'wrong' and '[did] not represent BBC policy'.

In this release, the BBC then proceeded to outline its policy:
'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.

We don't make this decision lightly - a senior editor has to judge that there is indeed a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience.

In terms of attribution, ie giving a credit to the copyright holder, it's something we should always try and do when we use such photos in BBC News output.

But sometimes, in the exceptional circumstances just outlined, it's just not possible to make contact with the person who took the picture, or they don't want to be contacted, or we might consider it too dangerous to try and make contact - a significant issue in our coverage of the recent Arab uprisings.

Even when we do make contact, the copyright holder might give us permission, but ask not to be credited because it puts them in danger or they believe it will be used against them in some way.

So, when we can't credit the copyright holder, our practice has been to label the photo to indicate where it was obtained, such as "From Twitter", as part of our normal procedure for sourcing content used in our output.

We do want to acknowledge the value our audience adds to our output, and hope this sheds light on our editorial decision process made during exceptional circumstances'.
This Kat wonders whether the BBC is setting a bad example to other web users and media outlets by admitting that in certain circumstances it will use a photograph from the internet before it has been properly cleared with the copyright owner. She always thought that there was no public interest defence to copyright infringement and that it was not justifiable to use a copyright work merely because one could not contact the copyright owner ...

Merpel wonders if it is too late to apply the BBC's logic to content on TV and iPlayer. After all, she thinks, television and the internet are platforms available to most people who have a TV set or computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain. If so, she would not mind recording or downloading all of the BBC's 'Spooks'. Merpel is aware of copyright issues and is careful to abide by these laws.


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