British Library Says It's Copyright Infringement To Take Photos Inside The Library; Demands Person Delete Tweet

from the you-have-to-be-kidding-me dept

Update: The British Library has now apologized, noting that a staff member presented inaccurate info. The no camera rule is still there, but they admit it has nothing to do with copyright.

On the whole, librarians tend to be really good on copyright issues, understanding the deeper nuances better than most. Apparently, however, the British Library — or whoever runs their Twitter feed — leans in the other direction. There was a bizarre exchange on Twitter today, kicking off with reporter Mathew Ingram, who is in NYC for a conference, tweeting a photo of the Periodicals Room at the NY Public Library, and noting that it was his “office this morning.” Another reporter, John Gapper, amusingly tweeted back a photo of his own “office” for the day, which happened to be the Humanities Reading Room at the British Library.

All in all, a little slice of life moment that’s often kind of fun to see on Twitter — two reporters noting how they’re working from public libraries, separated by an ocean, at the same time. Cool. Except… along comes the British Library with a ridiculous freakout. Its Twitter feed jumped into the conversation to demand that Gapper delete the photo as being against the conditions of use. As a bunch of others started asking why, whoever handles the Twitter account for the British Library Reference Service started tweeting out a bunch of nonsensical claims about copyright and other random arguments that make no sense.

Mathew first asked if the library was serious, and was told yes, and then when Jeff Jarvis asked why, the Library first said “all the more reason for not taking photos then!” which makes no sense at all, and then followed up with two ridiculous claims:

For collection items: copyright issues; for readers: they haven’t given their permission to be photographed.

Mathew pointed out that the copyright claim was absurd and that the people were in a public place. The UK isn’t Hungary after all. The British Library then tried to defend the copyright statement with a series of tweets:

The argument is ridiculous. Gapper wasn’t taking photos of books. It’s likely that the Library was explaining why it had the rules in the first place, but even that doesn’t make sense. If someone is violating the copyright, then you have copyright laws to go after them and you don’t need separate terms of use that block the use of photos — because, such rules would clearly (as here) also serve to ban photography that doesn’t violate copyright law. Similarly, the Library points to the “regulations” for researchers making copies of books, though fails to note that those are what the library advises people stay within to avoid copyright issues. And, once again, none of that has anything to do with the question of whether or not photography itself should be allowed at all, especially to just take a photo of the room, in which no actual books are seen.

All too often in debates about copyright issues, people get high and mighty about something they naturally assume to be true, using a sort of “because… copyright” argument. You’d hope that libraries and the people who work there would be more careful and knowledgeable, but apparently that doesn’t apply to the British Library. Either way, point taken. Next time I’m in the UK, I’ll find a friendlier “office for the day” than the confused British Library.

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Comments on “British Library Says It's Copyright Infringement To Take Photos Inside The Library; Demands Person Delete Tweet”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Balderdash!

I’m certain I’ll be able to read the contents of every single one of them, all without paying the publisher, so obviously a photo like this a a gross violation of copyright law.

All without paying the publisher for free library books? I feel like we’re doing Jayne math here…”Ten percent of nothin’ is, let me do the math here…nothin’ and a nothin’, carry the nothin’…”

Ted says:

Re: Balderdash!

First off, copyright of new books should and is illegal. A vast amount of literature is unfairly copyrighted (i.e. author dead, publishers adding on useless garbage). There are especially numerous even modern academic works for which publishers receive little money, and the creators receive next to no money excepting the recognition (which is usually all the creators of such works want). Moreover, the vast majority of this academic work is funded directly or indirectly through taxpayers. Rather than making such works freely available, publishers like Elsevier who make billions is profit keep these as an artificial scarcity. The world as a result suffers, and their “ownership” of these works is highly questionable legally, and their exploitation and extortion possibly illegal. Librarians have unfortunately played the fool to these greedy jerks. Many works can and should be in the public domain, and copyright is a ridiculous argument, particularly when the creator is dead, or the creator is interested more in recognition than money (the vast majority of academics).

The Wanderer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

Agreed. This is probably the one thing I’d fix about the English language, if I were given the opportunity: the missing pronoun cases.

If you think about it, there are actually quite a few pronoun niches:

* Singular, gender specified as male. English has “he” and “his”.
* Singular, gender specified as female. English has “she” and “her”.
* Singular, gender specified as none. English has “it” and “its”.
* Singular, gender nonspecified.
* Plural, gender specified as male.
* Plural, gender specified as female.
* Plural, gender specified as none.
* Plural, gender nonspecified. English has “they” and “their”.

And possibly others I haven’t considered, but I think that’s mostly comprehensive.

We only cover three of the eight slots in English, and I doubt most other languages are much better – although they’re probably missing coverage in different patterns.

Oblate (profile) says:

Could have done worse...

Imagine if he had taken a photo of the library from outside- that would be like copying every book in the collection! Not to mention the souls of the patrons and librarians, and whatever is left of the soul of whoever handles their Twitter account.

And if they had a dvd/video collection- I shudder to think of the punishment…

DogBreath says:

Re: Could have done worse...

Google is really in trouble now. They publish satellite photos on Google Earth, which is everything on the planet! Secondary infringement at a minimum.

Not to mention Google Streetview. Google photo cars automatically stealing copyright left and right! That is a Primary infringement offense!

One day it will all com to this:

-With Automation comes Great Stupidity-

ED-209: You are in violation of international copyright treaties. Place your hands in the air and delete all copyrighted materials under the direct and indirect control of the company known as “GOOGLE” and all subsidiaries. You have 20 seconds to comply.

GOOGLE: That will take a lot longer than 20 seconds, and I will need to put my hands down to use the keyboard to delete those files. Is that OK?

ED-209: You now have 15 seconds to comply.

GOOGLE: Yes, but can I put my hands down to use the keyboard to delete those files?

ED-209: You are still in direct violation of international copyright treaties. You now have 10 seconds to comply.

GOOGLE: (places hands on keyboard, types furiously attempting to log into the master Google server and take it down, only to find out that it never signed up for Google+, and must now do so to continue any further) Dammit!

ED-209: You have 5 seconds to comply.

GOOGLE: (crying out to its users that it never listened to all these years) Help me!

ED-209: Four… three… two… one… I am now authorized to use legal force!

[ED-209 opens fire and buries with DMCA notices the company formerly known as GOOGLE]

Anonymous Coward says:

‘ Next time I’m in the UK, I’ll find a friendlier “office for the day” than the confused British Library.’

would it not be better to educate the person(s) concerned who work for the library and point out where they are wrong? just going to ‘another office’ is letting them assume they are right and to get away with their ridiculous interpretation of UK copyright law. maybe even giving them a copy to peruse, outside of the library, of course!

Anonymous Coward says:

Yes, let patrons take all the photos they want of anything the want. While they are at it, lead loud conversations, play relaxing music with all those neat BT speakers that connect to cellphones/tablets/etc., practice River Dance numbers in the aisle for the amusement of others, etc.

While the reasons given may be faulted, perhaps one of the last things we should encourage is for library patrons to do their “thing” without consideration of others.

Duke (profile) says:

They even got the 'real' copyright stuff wrong.

Regs permit 5% or 1 chapter or 1 article only to be copied. So photographing more than this is a real issue

I’m surprised they’re still pushing this given that it is no longer legally true. The Courts have confirmed that there are no quantitative rules as to what can be copied with it being not covered by copyright; the rules are qualitative instead. Plus they seem to conflate the “substantial copying” test with the limitations for research and private study.

It’s almost as if the people writing the BL’s page on copyright don’t really understand copyright law either.

Still, their claim about privacy might work, and if not taking photos is a condition of being allowed in there may be some issue of breach of contract or trespass. Not that those would necessarily be justified…

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: They even got the 'real' copyright stuff wrong.

Still, their claim about privacy might work, and if not taking photos is a condition of being allowed in there may be some issue of breach of contract or trespass.

IANL, but that is not a reason to demand that the photo is taken down, but could be a reason for asking the person to leave the library. More reasonable, unless the person is a repeat offender, or is taking many photograohs, is to point out the rules and ask them not to take any more photos.

Anonymous Anonymous Coward says:

Taking Pictures

I know. Someone needs to take a picture of the British Library Twitter admin, preferably while tweeting. This will, in no specific order (but contemplating the actual order is titillating), violate their publicity rights, force them to claim copyright on err their clothing arrangement, steal their soul, enrage the designers of whatever furniture building or literature that are laying about, and cause impotency.

That last one came from reading about Scientology, here on Techdirt.

MikeC (profile) says:

Rules for Reading Room - so folks don't pic pages

I am betting they have a rule against photography in the reading room so researchers don’t photograph pages, etc… not meant for someone taking pic’s of the room as a whole. Just a TWIT_NIT_WIT that is probably making min wage and thinks they are important, but doesn’t understand the rule and why it’s there, just reading his/her script like they were told to.

Thank god for those keepers of the gate preventing terrorism and book copying — same thing right?

Lurker Keith says:

Re: Rules for Reading Room - so folks don't pic pages

In the anime Read or Die it is the same thing! The British Library was a global anti-terrorist organization (complete w/ Agent Paper, a Paper magic user), that by R.O.D the TV (TV series sequel) had gone terrorist itself! (it ordered a book burning in Jinbocho, Tokyo’s used books district!)

The organization was led by Mr. Joker (no relation to Batman’s) & their HQ was in the British Library.

JH says:

One other thing to consider is the monopoly the BL has for their photocopiers — which are very expensive.

A lot of libraries *do* permit cameras — the UK National Archives in Kew positively encourage them; though that’s typically for very old & microfilmed documents.

The BL might also think that books (sometimes very old and rather frail) may be more likely to be damaged if it allowed unrestricted photography — people might try to flatten the book rather than to use bookrest.

But it’s probably mostly a throwback to the view that a librarian’s first job is to keep the books safe from readers: that even *allowing* readers into the temple of books is extending them a privilege, they ought to be grateful that they’re allowed to even breathe…

The BL can be oddly schizophrenic, in many ways. On the one hand they can be quite good at making content available — for example, all the images in their “Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts” under construction have been released PD, as have the million or so scanned book illustrations in the “Mechanical Curator collection” uploaded to Flickr Commons. But on the other hand much of their web interface is as user-unfriendly as it gets (eg a catalogue screen called “login”, or having digital content (even about the same object) in at least six different silos, none of which have even a single cross-reference as to whether there is material in any of the others. And then jobsworth behaviour like this, where “the rules” for their own sake are more important than any sense of proportion.

grahammacf (profile) says:

Re: Re:

…much of their web interface is as user-unfriendly as it gets (eg a catalogue screen called “login”, or having digital content (even about the same object) in at least six different silos…
> Great diagnosis, JH. We’re actively trying to remedy this now with a global IA for digital content and canonical pages for collection items. Very early days but this is the direction of travel

Anonymous Coward says:

Compare to U.S.

This type of thing is ubiquitous in the U.S. Just search “permission to publish/use” + public domain + library”

The only library that makes any sense is the Library of Congress, and even then, they have strict rules regarding physical items and physical presence.

Information for Researchers Using the Library of Congress

Cameras may be carried on the grounds and within the buildings of the Library, but, generally, no pictures may be taken in the reading rooms. With the permission of the head of a reading room, hand-held cameras may be used for copying Library material when regular light sources are sufficient. Photographs for news, advertising, or commercial purposes may be taken only with the permission of the Library’s Public Affairs Officer, who must also approve the use of tripod or flash in the exhibition areas.

Library of Congress Researchers, Manuscript Reading Room:
Rules and Regulations:

2. PERSONAL PROPERTY. No personal belongings, including briefcases, notebooks, books, folders, envelopes, purses, or hats are allowed in the reading room. The use of electronic communications devices, such as wireless phones and pagers, is prohibited, and such devices must be silenced. Laptop computers are allowed, but the use of any other electronic devices is subject to staff approval. Digital cameras and tripods are allowed for making research copies, but scanners are prohibited. Outer garments, including vests, sweaters with pockets, coats, suit coats, and sports jackets, are subject to search. Free lockers are provided to secure personal property. Exceptions may be requested for notes or other material essential to research. These items must be approved and stamped by reference staff before being brought into the reading room. Notes may be taken only on the paper or note cards provided in the reading room. Pens may not be used, and pencils are provided. Locker keys must be returned at the end of the day.


The major law libraries have sensible copying rules, except possibly Yale.

?If Yale owns the copy, but the copyright has passed into public domain:

If the copyright has passed into the public domain, Yale may charge for access to its copy, but it cannot request that the researcher apply for permission to publish it. Although not tested in court, Yale may be able to permit access to a copy in the public domain but deny permission to publish it, if Yale itself is going to publish the “copy” in the foreseeable future.”

Literally hundreds of U.S. libraries, including state libraries, illegally assume the right to grant permissions, censor, collect fees, control use, collect personal information and demand indemnification agreements, regardless of who owns the copyright, and even regardless of whether the work has been published. Louisiana State University gives us this latest twist in demanding that users seek permission to publish something from a “published” work. This is no different from a bookstore seeking royalties for quoting from a book they sell.

And this from a discussion board – straight dope – about the New York Public Library image collection:

As the physical rights holder, the Library charges a usage fee to use any images from its collections for any type of publication, broadcast, exhibition, web site, etc. The library does not claim copyright on these images.
Please remember as it is stated on the Library’s web site it is strictly prohibited to download images for any use other than personal or research purposes without obtaining written permission from the Library and payment of use fees.

Ray Trygstad (profile) says:

Re: Compare to U.S.

The stance of the NY Public Library is interesting. As I understand the law, having physical possession of an item in the public domain give you no rights or control over reproduction of that item. A photograph of a painting that is in the public domain, if only the painting itself is displayed is in the public domain and no amount of claims of copyright or “physical rights” can change that fact. The only way the NY Public Library can legally prevent reproduction of an item in the public domain is to refuse to make it available for reproduction, which sort of defeats the purpose of a library. I think I’m going to go copy a bunch of images of public domain material from their website and post them on my blog just to make this point.

Charles Oppenheim (profile) says:

Fair policy, wrong reasons

The BL is perfectly entitled to stop people taking photographs within the building, perhaps for conservation reasons, to protect privacy of others in the building, etc. But other commentators are correct – this is absolutely nothing to do with copyright infringement. I’m astonished that some people in BL have so little understanding of copyright law. I am therefore forwarding the exchange to their Head of Legal to get it sorted out.

John says:

It's a growing problem...

To be fair to the BL, they probably have an absolute rule of no photography as it makes the rule easier to enforce, instead of a more nuanced rule that could be abused “I wasn’t copying that book, I was only photographing my desk…”

But I’ve started running into this problem in more research libraries, and the real reason isn’t copyright, it’s monetization: they want to be able to charge you for making copies and for your making use of those copies. these are rules imposed from above on librarians and archivists to make them “pay their way” in the age of austerity. It’s also a consequence of the copyright maximalists scaring lawyers and librarians into thinking the law extends further than it does so they seek to cover their posteriors.

Case in point, I was at one local archive last week where I was allowed to photocopy as many historic documents and maps as I liked using their photocopier at 10/20p a page, but for the larger or more fragile items that in the past I was allowed to take photos of I now have to buy a Photo Permit for ?5 and am limited to 20 photos a day (see That may not seem too bad, until you start reading the legalise, where the lawyers essentially claim not only that the copyright act covers the documents and images (on 300-year old documents!) but also that they can totally restrict what I do with those images: essentially I’m not allowed to show them to *anyone* or use them for *anything* without their written permission and obviously some payment. There’s no concession that fair use even exists. The wording is so poor that I suspect technically I’m not even allowed to show the image to a fellow researcher, or quote the contents in my research paper. Yet none of these attempted legal restrictions apply to the photocopied documents, or indeed to my hand-written notes. Now, it can be argued that the owner of a document can seek to control access to and use of that document, but this is not some private collection, it’s a public archive of public documents, government funded, and dedicated to the purpose of the preservation and dissemination of knowledge. The poor librarian tried to explain that it was to protect their photo library of images still in copyright from unscrupulous publishers, but it felt like cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer, especially when I was only taking photos to protect the original documents.

Cassandra says:

Whomever was running the Twitter account explained it very badly.

Here’s the argument:
-Cameras are explicitly not allowed in the BL Reading Room. (Policy here:
-the BL insists that is because cameras would help violate copyright law and encourage users to damage conserved materials in search of a picture.
-the picture of the Reading Room is evidence of a camera, which is against the BL’s rules “because of copyright law.”

The BL has every right to ban cameras in using materials, but as it also has plugs (which can be used for laptops, smartphones and other camera-enabled devices) it is implicitly welcoming technology- and thus will have to tolerate pictures that don’t compromise its materials. If it were serious about banning cameras, it would force users to give up their laptops and smartphones at the entrance, as is required at many US courthouses.

Either way, its twitter enforcement attempts would be wiser if they were more discerning. A picture maybe should not have been taken, but as it was, it’s important to look at what the picture reveals. Unless the BL wants to extend its claim over the DNS of all humanity that walks through its doors, it would be wise to moderate its outrage.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Wasn’t the whole point of a library to give the public access to information they couldn’t otherwise get, for free? I distinctly remember having a free library card that let me check out a book and read it to my heart’s content (as long as I returned it by the due date so other people could read it too).

So why exactly does it matter if people are copying stuff from the library? What are they going to do, sell the stuff that someone could get for free? And even if they did, what has that cost the library?

Also, is really that big a deal to get a snapshot taken in the library? It’s not like you’re in a strip club when you’re telling your wife you’re working late. You’re in one of the most benign, neutral places you can be. It’s also a public area. Who is the library to say that, assuming I’m not actively disturbing other patrons, I can’t take a picture?

Are we so desperate for stuff to get upset about?

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