Upset with BBC's treatment with photo credits from Twitter users during the London riots and Oslo attacks, Andy Mabbett, a blogger and amateur photographer, took to the web to express his disappointment - and to publicise BBC's surprising response.
On 06 August, Mabbett sent a complaint to the BBC for its news coverage of the Tottenham riots in north London. The blogger objected to the way the images had been credited - the images appeared on the air with a "from Twitter" mention.
"You may have found them via [Twitter] but they would have been hosted elsewhere and taken by other photographers, whom you did not name and whose copyright you may have breached," Mabbett told the BBC in his complaint.
“I want them to attribute photographers and cite their sources,” Mabbett tells BJP, commenting on his decision to contact the BBC despite not seeing any of his photos used “in this way”. [updated on Tuesday 16 August at 10.30am]
One week later, Mabbett published BBC's answer. "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 post, which has attracted widespread attention in teh photography community, has forced the BBC to backtrack, with Chris Hamilton, social media editor at the BBC, commenting that the BBC was now "checking out the complaint response quoted above but, on the face of it, it's wrong and isn't the position of BBC News."
Hamilton added: "We want to do right by potential contributors and our audience - it's not in our interests to annoy them - and this is a good opportunity to remind ourselves of that."
Update: The BBC has now issued an official statement, confirming that the initial response "doesn't represent BBC policy." The institution adds: "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 says that such decisions are not made lightly - "a senior editor has to judge that there is indeed a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience."
It continues: "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."
The BBC also argues that in some cases copyright owners will ask not to be named. "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."
It remains unclear, however, whether copyright owners of English riot images asked the BBC to remove their names for security reasons. [Updated on Monday 15 August at 5.50pm]
In the US, the use of images posted on Twitter is at the centre of a high-profile case between freelance photographer Daniel Morel and Agence France Presse and Getty Images.
The case, which is expected to be tried later this year, was launched after Agence France Presse distributed images of the 2010 Haiti earthquake Morel posted on Twitter. According to Agence France Presse, Morel had implicitly granted a non-exclusive license to third-parties to use the images. However, a judge dismissed Agence France Presse's claim, allowing the photographer to move forward with his copyright infringement case against the news agency and Getty Images.
Mabbett's complaint also comes as Twitter has officially launched its official photo-sharing service, hosted by Photobucket. Speaking to BJP, a Twitter spokeswoman has confirmed that while Twitter requires a non-exclusive license to host and show its users' images, photographers remain the rightful owners of their images.
Meanwhile, TwitPic recently signed a deal with the WENN photo agency to sell its users' images without remuneration for copyright owners.
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