Wikimedia is part of the not-for-profit foundation that oversees Wikipedia and was found by Sweden’s highest court to have violated copyright laws by providing free access to its database of public artwork without the artists’ consent.
The Visual Copyright Society in Sweden (BUS) is a group that represents painters, photographers, illustrators and designers (among others) and brought the proceedings against Wikimedia Sweden.
The Supreme Court ruled in favour of BUS and held that while individuals were permitted to photograph artwork on display in public places providing free and unlimited access to a database of art photographs was an entirely different matter. The court noted in its decision that the database could be assumed to have commercial value that is not insignificant and that the artists were entitled to that value. The amount of damages that Wikimedia Sweden will be required to pay to BUS will be determined by a Stockholm district court at a later date.
In response to the ruling, Wikimedia Sweden said the decision showed that the country’s copyright laws were lagging behind the times and described them as not adequate for the digital reality we all live in today. It is also noted however that Wikimedia Sweden had refused to sign a licensing agreement that would have cost several thousand kronor per year in licensing fees.
Freedom of panorama is an exception in the copyright laws of various jurisdictions (including the UK) permitting the taking of photographs and video footage of buildings, sculptures and other art works permanently located in a public place, without risking copyright infringement. However, in some other EU member states, it is illegal to publish photographs of certain monuments without permission (e.g. the Eiffel Tower by night, since the tower’s illuminations added in 2003 retain copyright, even though the copyright for the structure itself, built in 1889, has long since expired).
The Wikimedia Sweden case has attracted the attention of the UK-based Open Rights Group who have argued that freedom of panorama is essential for ordinary photographers in the digital age and that it is impossible to know if a building or public artwork is within copyright term.
If you are a photographer or videographer and you intend to publish photographs or footage of buildings, sculptures or other works of art that are permanently available in public spaces, it is worth consulting with a specialist copyright lawyer before you do so. Briffa advises on copyright and all contentious and non-contentious aspects of intellectual property law.
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