The British Library and The Gray Area of Modern Copyright

This past Friday, Matthew Ingram, senior writer at Gigiaom, tweeted a picture of his view from the New York Public Library. John Gapper, fellow journalist and Financial Times columnist, replied with his view from the British Library. The social media department of the British Library did not appreciate the shout out and immediately asked Gapper to remove the photo because he violated conditions of use.

The only problem is that it wasn’t.

When using the London Reading Rooms, rule 28 (out of 40) states that, “Cameras and scanners must not be brought into the Reading Rooms. Likewise, mobile phone cameras must not be used within the Reading Rooms.” The person behind the British Library reminded Gapper of this and asked him to take it down.

Gapper apologized, but Ingram and BuzzMachine blogger Jeff Jarvis asked why. This is when the British Library started to stray from logical responses. Instead of citing the rules, the account said that photography is copyright infringement on the books and that the people in the photo did not give their permission to be photographed.

TechDirt covered exactly why these reasons are absurd.

1. The copyright rules are actually guidelines for Reading Room users.

The library account tweeted that copyright law permits five percent of books, articles, and papers, or one chapter or one article – whichever is longer. However, that wasn’t the law. That was the guidelines set for visitors who wanted to police themselves when making copies. In no way are those guidelines legally binding.

2. There were hardly any visible books in the picture.

While the books may be visible, it’s next to impossible to make out any titles, much less consume information about the whole book. That’s also some pretty bizarre logic that taking a picture counts as copying one whole book.

3. There’s debate over whether or not the public library reading room is a private place.

The British Library as a whole is a public place, meaning you can take pictures and post them regardless of who is in it; however, the Reading Room in particular requires a pass and is therefore private. That was the argument the British Library twitter manager made in regard to the people photographed.

In the end, the British Library made a statement clarifying their stance on photography in the reading rooms (hint: it’s still banned) and apologized online to the journalists for any misunderstanding or offense. Gapper assured them there was no harm done.

A Small Example of a Large Problem

Copyright law in the age of the Internet has become hotly contested by brands and content creators. While some violations, like scraped content, are blatant copyright infringements, new gray areas are forming.

The Proliferation of Cameras

Museum curators and protectors of copyright content are having an increasingly hard time preventing people from taking photographs. It used to be easy to spot cameras, now it’s almost impossible to decide if someone is texting or Instagramming.

Sharing Without Attribution

Bloggers and artists try their best to optimize images for search, in hopes of increasing traffic and building a strong readership. The problem is that anyone who uses Google Image Search can find the photos, take them, and use them without credit. Getty faced this problem and recently opened up embed codes for people to use images for free. The decision was mostly because there would be no way to sue anyone who has even used a Getty Image for free. Multiple artists and designers see their work all across the Internet without their names attached, and the copyright of the content is hotly debated each day.

Seedy SEO Techniques

The SEO industry has opened up a world of hurt on copyright content. Spammers will spin articles to say the exact same thing, with only a few words tweaked in each sentence. They try to do enough to avoid being considered duplicate content, without actually writing their own articles. Fortunately in the past few years, both Google and bloggers have caught onto this and the practice is decreasing.

While the British Library was in the right to ask John Gapper to refrain from taking pictures, their reasons and continued arguments were bad form. Their social manager needed to wait and craft a smart message before replying and keep a cool head on his or her shoulders. Fortunately, the journalists involved were forgiving, this time.

About the author

Amanda Dodge