Photographing the Eiffel Tower is illegal

Please tell me this isn’t true.

The Eiffel Tower’s likeness had long since been part of the public domain, when in 2003, it was abruptly repossessed by the city of Paris. That’s the year that the SNTE, the company charged with maintaining the tower, adorned it with a distinctive lighting display, copyrighted the design, and in one feel swoop, reclaimed the nighttime image and likeness of the most popular monument on earth. In short: they changed the actual likeness of the tower, and then copyrighted that.

As a result, it’s no longer legal to publish current photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night without permission. Technically, this applies even to amateurs.

Full story and comments here.

Update, 7 February

Over at BoingBoing, Cory gets angry about another example: the city of Chicago spent $270 million of public money on a sculpture for its Millennium Park, and now prevents Chicagoans from taking photographs of a public sculpture they paid for. He says:

What kind of jerk sculptor sells the city a piece of public art for a public park and then demands that no one take pictures of it? Christ, they should run this guy out of town on a rail and melt the goddamned sculpture down for scrap. Then they should fire the politician who signed a purchase contract that reserved the photographic rights and run him out of town on the same rail.

11 thoughts on “Photographing the Eiffel Tower is illegal

  1. gusto says:

    You can’t publish photographs of London landmarks, either, without permission. Try turning up in Trafalgar Square with a photographer with a big lens and see how long it takes for security to appear. As it was explained to me, copyright laws apply here — if the building/painting-of-the-Mona-Lisa is incidental, you’re ok (you’re just snapping a shot of a mate next to it), but a direct shot is a no-no because you are reproducing a copyright image.

    Kinda weird, when you think about it…

  2. Stephen says:

    That’s true: I recently sent some photos to a stock photo site, and in their “about intellectual property” bit of the FAQ they used the night-time image of the Eiffel Tower (and the Sydney Opera House) as examples of images they would not accept due to copyright concerns. I’m not really sure how they can get away with this, because if you are standing on public property the normal rule is that anything you can see you can photograph, without needing a release. (I actually have an image of the Eiffel Tower at night, but it’s an old one: I took it in 1985. Wonder what would happen if I put it up on my blog?)

  3. Stephen says:

    It sounds as if I’m agreeing with gusto, but I’m actually agreeing with Gary’s post: gusto posted while I was still typing. I don’t actually think gusto is right: who owns the copyright on Trafalgar Square?

  4. Gary says:

    Is it me, or has copyright been utterly perverted? The whole point of copyright – which I fully agree with – is that the author of a work should be protected to prevent others from making knock-offs or claiming credit for others’ work for a limited time, but surely controlling whether someone can take a picture of something that anyone can *see* is beyond the spirit of copyright law? Sure if you build a facsimile of the Eiffel tower then that’s a straight copy, but a photo of it? I don’t get it, and I don’t see how that reflects the intentions of copyright law.

  5. David says:

    I vaguely remember running into something like this before. I think the copyright issue with landmarks and the like is that you are potentially infringeing on the copyright of previous photographers – especially if they were commissioned by the owners of the building. I don’t think you can copyright something like a view or a landmark (other than, as mentioned, things like light-shows and other displays) but you can copyright images of it.
    They can’t stop you taking the picture really (although they will try – I had a facilities manager who would chase people with cameras down the street!) but there is almost an infinite amount of variation in the resulting image and they would have a hard time proving that you were copying their image. It could be argued that, unless they actually did it, the copyright for images of a particular landmark is owned by the first person ever to publish it – in which case there is potential for owners of landmarks being sued for infringement by selling their own postcards.

    >>I took it in 1985. Wonder what would happen if I put it up on my blog?)

    Nothing. For two reasons. 1) they only have copyright on the current illuminated image of the tower and 2) the company have specifically said that they are not interested in non-commercial use.

    >>who owns the copyright on Trafalgar Square?

    That would be an extremely complicated one since you would have to take into account all the advertisers.

  6. Gary says:

    > I think the copyright issue with landmarks and the like is that you are potentially infringeing on the copyright of previous photographers

    But you can’t copyright ideas, only the form in which they’re expressed – so for example if I had a brilliant idea for a story, there’s nothing to stop someone else writing the story using the same basic idea; what they can’t do is copy my story exactly. With photography, I’d argue that the thing being photographed is the equivalent of a fact, and the resulting photograph is the equivalent of the story. So other photographers should be free to use the same basic facts – the thing, the setting, the location, the lighting conditions – but they shouldn’t be allowed to nick other photographers’ work and pass it off as their own.

  7. David says:

    That’s difficult though – if you take a picture and it looks like a picture someone else has taken then it could be argued that it is a copy – even if that was only a coincidence. OK, it’s unlikely, but say U2 had never heard of A-ha. It still sounds like the sun always shines on tv.

    >>the thing being photographed is the equivalent of a fact, and the resulting photograph is the equivalent of the story.

    But if someone wrote an almost identical story using the same idea it would infringe on copyright.

    >>So other photographers should be free to use the same basic facts – the thing, the setting, the location, the lighting conditions

    The complication here is that if you take a picture using exactly the same conditions there is enormous scope to create a completely different image by varying apeture settings and the like. Your argument is sound if copyright law applies only if you *intend* to create the same image rather than do it by coincidence. (or more to the point if images can be copyrighted)

    Personally I’ve got an enormous problem with copyright. I understand why it is there (in spirit at least) to protect people from being ripped off – but its increasingly become a tool to rip people off.

  8. gusto says:

    OK, I asked an expert and got the following answer (summarised by me). Not that it really helps with the Eiffel Tower example, but I think it’s interesting anyway:

    It’s not likely to be a copyright issue, although buildings can be copyright works, statues are, and there may be a few new ones in Trafalgar Square (ie still in copyright).

    But, s31 of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988 gives the right to include copyright works in a film or photo – if it is “incidentally” included. Additionally, s62 gives you the right to take pictures of buildings and sculptures that are on public display, which is why many places put a ticket restriction of “no photography” on the admission ticket, making it a contractual matter not a copyright one.

  9. Gary says:

    Quick correction: the $270 million figure quoted is the cost of the entire public park, not just the sculpture.

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