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Use of photographs from social media in our output

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Chris Hamilton | 17:23 UK time, Monday, 15 August 2011

The use in BBC News output of photographs made available via social networking sites, especially Twitter, has been receiving some attention online in the last couple of days and we want to set the record straight.

Boy takes a picture of elephants with his camera phone in Chicago


Andy Mabbett blogged about an official complaint he made to the BBC that, in our coverage of rioting in Tottenham on 6 August, we used photographs without naming the people who took them, and whose copyright we may have breached.

We've looked into the response that was sent by the team that deals with complaints for the BBC. It essentially stated such content was "not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain".

Unfortunately, this is wrong, and the response doesn't represent BBC policy. We apologise for any confusion it caused. Another direct response, and apology, is being sent to Mr Mabbett.

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.

We don't make this decision lightly - a senior editor has to judge that there is indeed a strong public interest in making a photo available to a wide audience.

In terms of attribution, ie giving a credit to the copyright holder, it's something we should always try and do when we use such photos in BBC News output.

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.

Even when we do make contact, the copyright holder might give us permission, but ask not to be credited because it puts them in danger or they believe it will be used against them in some way.

So, 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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Given that there is a source that the BBC can fully control namely BBC journalists and reporters then whay is the BBC ever so rellant on another platform in any event..."The use in BBC News output of photographs made available via social networking sites, especially Twitter," I mean the BBC shouldn't be giving a load of free advertising to other companies especially ones floated on the Stock Exchange e.g. MySpace and what will the BBC do when eventually Facebook etc. start "closing down" - I'm very nervous that the BBC is out-sourcing so much to these 3rd party sites that all it would take is for Facebook etc. to be bought out by an organisation that wants nothing to do with the BBC - also it also begs a question...who pays for all this? Is it Aman in Saudi Arabia, Wesley in South Africa or Luis in Brazil? No it's Mr and Mrs GFR in the UK via their license fee, that unique way the BBC is funded.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting, and it's good to get an official response on this.

    Personally I think this approach sounds appropriate and strikes a good public interest balance between news and copyright protection. When someone makes a picture available on twitter (say) they must have reasonable expectations about how it will be used. But I'd be interested to know whether others agree, especially those who regularly take and distribute photos this way.

    If a professional photographer asked the BBC for a usage fee after their picture was re-used in this way, would it pay one?

  • Comment number 3.

    A few years back, I took some photos of a downed aircraft in the Winchcombe hills and uploaded them onto Flickr. The licence I was happy using at the time was CC-BY-SA-NC. (I have since realised my short-sightedness and stopped using NC). I was quite happy for any publication to use them, as long as they sought permission (so I could drop the -NC) beforehand and made the licence & attribution visible - in fact, I remember being called at work by the Daily Mail to use them… but they did not wish to use CC, I would not waive the licence, so they did not use them.

    Anyhow, I fear that the current course of the BBC and ‘public interest’ is going to turn copyright on it’s head. At what point did a corporation get free reign over others copyright, while the people have to respect yours?
    If you do not wish to seek correct attribution, then you cannot use it. Simple as. At _minimum_ you should use ‘’ and not Twitter…

  • Comment number 4.

    You should not use photographs without permission from the copyright holder. It's really that simple. Just because something is online does not mean you can help yourself to it. If the BBC does this, it sets an appalling example to other web users. If you can't contact the copyright holder, don't use it. Quite apart from anything else, contacting the copyright holder should be part of the process of verifying an image: if you just take something off Twitter and assume it's what it says it is, then frankly I'm appalled.

    And you must pay for photographs if required. If someone is happy for you to use something for free, then all well and good, but the assumption must be that you pay the going rate - I'd suggest an NUJ rate. I'd add that the presumption should be that you use a professional photographer's image in preference to one nicked from Twitter/Flickr/Facebook. It's hard enough to make a living in journalism these days; to have a big news organisation wilfully undermining fellow professionals is pretty disgraceful.

  • Comment number 5.

    Chris, I think the approach BBC is adopting is a sound one. There has to be a balance between what's in the public's interest and process related matters. As a journalist and photographer myself, I have been taken off-guard on a few occasions having only my mobile with me when something newsworthy took place. I have certainly been on the receiving end of some online publications 'nicking' my tweeted photos when covering the Middle East uprisings earlier this year, for example - personally, I put the photos in the public domain to share them with the public and I don't have an issue with a news agency doing that.

    In my experience, there is little malice in distributing topical photos urgently and each time it's been done, even though it might have been later, I have received credit from the publication. I do agree with johndrinkwater's comment (3) above - if the photos are taken from Twitter it is good practice to credit the user rather than 'Twitter' as being the source.


  • Comment number 6.

    I think this is a disgusting stance. Whether it's "in the public's interest" or not, if you are unable to get explicit permission to use an image/video etc then you simply should not use it. Would the BBC allow me to do the same with their content? "I didn't get a reply quick enough so I used it anyway". That's just wrong. It's blatant disregard to other people's copyright and work.

  • Comment number 7.

    Kate (#4) is right - the primary and essential task is to seek permission for an item to be reproduced. I accept and understand, in the case of a fast-breaking news story for example, prior permission is rarely possible, and thus the permission request (and confirmation of the attribution details etc, if these are not apparent previously) should be followed up later. There is however a remarkable absence of the notion of obtaining permission in the summary points of the BBC guidelines, and indeed its only mention (in the final section) is in the context of justifying reproduction without permission.

    Despite Chris Hamilton's assurances to the contrary, it is evident that the BBC's official guidelines give the clear impression they are geared toward a philosophy of avoiding obtaining permission, and that is plain wrong in my view.


  • Comment number 8.

    "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" - that's good, but not the point. You need to obtain their permission, not just attempt to ask for it.

    And the source medium, such as Twitter, is irrelevant. It wouldn't be acceptable for Sky News to use some of your footage and say it was 'from TV'.

  • Comment number 9.

    I suppose I am a bit old fashioned but i think the media as a whole should take a step back and use old journalistic methods to provide verifiable stories and use verifiable pictures.
    It may be slow, but it does lead to accuracy, it prevents 'rumor control' from taking over.
    I am afraid the BBC's 'live' web page coverage, does seem to be an example of this fast but at times inaccurate and misleading source of information.

  • Comment number 10.

    It's worth noting that there is a public-interest defence in Copyright law (see in particular particular §171(3) of the CDPA 1988) — so this isn't just a case of BBC News saying “we'll stick to the law, except where we think it's tiresome”. If what would otherwise be infringement can be properly defended as being in the public interest then legally it's not problematic… but even so, what the law says and what people should do aren't necessarily the same thing. From my reading of this post and the editorial guidelines, it would seem to me that the BBC's stance is one of trying to do the right thing in often constrained circumstances, even where it's not obligated to do so.

    (I'm not a lawyer, and this is purely my own opinion, so take with as little or as much salt as is desirable…)

  • Comment number 11.

    Kate (#4) makes a powerful point that contacting the photographer should be part of the process of verifying the authenticity of the photos. With an immediate medium like Twitter it shouldn't take too long to make contact.

  • Comment number 12.

    Re #10, here's an interesting link/article on use of 'Public Interest' as a defence for copyright infringement: - It basically says if the information cannot be displayed in any other form and it is in the public's interest to see the information then you *might* be able to use that as defence. The BBC could easily have said "we have seen photo's from social media sites showing widespread looting" - that gets the information across in another format without resorting to stealing photo's.

  • Comment number 13.

    I left the BBC just before Twitter + co became mainstream but I can't help but feel the policy here hasn't evolved since my days at Auntie.

    The original response Andy Mabbett is testimony to that but even this blog post indicates policy hasn't caught up with the current landscape.

    I find it hard to believe there are that many instances where it is hard to work out who originally uploaded a photo (most photo sharing websites have an attribution). But in leu of that, writing "From Twitter" is a pointless and redundant thing to write.

    If a photo is at all newsworthy, chances are the same image is also being distributed via Facebook, Google Plus, Tumblr,, etc. The fact that *you* saw it via Twitter is pretty meaningless in most instances.

    However, I congratulate the BBC on embracing what we once called "citizen journalism". Those who claim this is the BBC trying to get free content fail to understand the change the industry is experiencing.

    But to that end, I'd like to see better use of citizen-shot video from the scene during breaking news events, especially as most new mobile phones are now able to stream live video onto the Internet.

  • Comment number 14.

    You MUST attempt contact prior to use. This means as little as sending a tweet, and takes 30 seconds. You should also assume that where you have been unable to gain permission prior to broadcast that you (the BBC) should pay the going industry rates for material (NUJ Rates suggested). You should only use material for free where you have prior permission (Not assumed Permission) to do so.

    Credit where it is due. (Both Reference and Recompense)

  • Comment number 15.

    If you're using photos that you're finding on Twitter, then a better approach would be to link to the tweet rather than copying the content. That way you're not breaking copyright law.

  • Comment number 16.

    "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"

    Completely unacceptable - you can't just ignore copyright issues when it suits you.

  • Comment number 17.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 18.

    How is an error in a BBC programme (e.g. a fact that in wrong) handled by the BBC? Is there an official corrections page? I brought an error to the attention of an editor and asked about a corrections page but was ignored.

  • Comment number 19.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 20.

  • Comment number 21.

    Dear Mr Hamilton

    You say: "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."

    I refer you to the Banier Judgment where Justice Lightman made this comment.

    "This may be common newspaper practice and one which newspapers normally get away with. The risk of infringement proceedings may, from a business and circulation point of view, be worth taking. It may be economic to 'publish and be damned'. But it is plainly unjustified and unlawful and the sooner this is recognised the better for all concerned. The adoption of this practice is not a passport to infringe copyright"

    The BBC is not above the law and if your statement is BBC policy they are clearly acting unlawfully.

  • Comment number 22.

    Kudos to BBC to come back and trying to rectify on their wrong doing.

    The good news is that there are such solutions emerging on the market addressing this exact issue. Check out

    daLockr addresses this exact issue and allows people to share their content / digital assets in a manageable and controlled manner on the net.

    This article is yet another one example of where and how news is created these and more will come. News will become increasingly user generated, may it be in the form of an images, a picture, a short video, a blog a text and so on. News corp need to be digitally present and increasingly so. They need to be able to act fast. So in essence this is not really only BBC fault as it takes 2 tango, specially in an environment where there are many different laws and these differ in different countries.

    Users need to take control of their digital asset, make sure these assets are properly marked with the right copyrights or attribution, share-alike, public domains or what have you labels.

    News publishers such BBC need to have an environment that allows them to quickly see how different type of contents / digital assets are protected and by whom.

    Let's create and make the news together.

  • Comment number 23.

    I don't see an issue with using data including photos from social media feeds. The speed at which information can be transmitted is one of the wonders of the current age and should be embraced rather than regulated. Consider the especially fast-moving scenarios like political uprisings as in the case of the African revolts and in instances of mass action, civil disobedience, and rioting where circumstances change quickly. Certainly this does not mean copyright on works and crediting can be ignored by the big news agencies.

    Some middle ground needs to be found in terms of fees for the usage of such photos as well as affording due credit to the person that created the content. If some generally accepted practice were defined - standards of some sort - then that would go a long way to ensuring the public who consume the news, the content creators and the distributors/ resellers of this content are happy.

    @atmosbob (#21) - I agree in principle but don't you think though that the legality Justice Lightman speaks of applies to a different context? Regardless, perhaps the standards that are set to award payment for use of social media (without permission) by agencies should be really punitive in order to ensure they do it when it is only worthwhile to do so. As a member of the public though, I'd prefer to know what's going on as it's happening rather than 2 days later after the paperwork.

  • Comment number 24.

    I am utterly appaled by the approach taken by the BBC. Even in cases where the person asks to remain anonymous for personal reasons. A comment such as "Attribution Declined" that makes it clear that somebody has at least asked. I don't see how you can justify "Public Interest" if you can't get hold of the owner of the COPYRIGHT picture, then you should just not use it.

  • Comment number 25.

    Is the lack of photographs sometimes a lack of courage, or perhaps a tacit agreement not to use some photographs.
    I have been wondering about all the photographs & video that I have seen showing People of Ziltan, Libya following the attack by British war planes from approximately 2 - 4 AM (August 8). The panic, the horror - the evidence of civilian slaughter.
    Another video is an appeal by Musa Ibrahim, Libyan Govt; he is speaking from Ziltan to western journalists. Libyan people are gathered around him. Ibrahim says: "This is an appeal."
    The 85 babies, children, women & men slain - many others critically injured - by British contingent of NATO were unarmed with no Libyan military presence in the area. Finished with their evening prayers after a day of fasting during Ramadan, most were sleeping in their beds. The western media in New York, London, Paris and other western cities have not shown (will not show) these videos or photographs. I suggest these western media are as guilty of this butchery as the leaders of western countries who are executing this criminal war.
    In colclusion: Do you want to acknowledge the value your audience adds to your output, or just to your selective output during exceptional circumstances

  • Comment number 26.

    The problem I see here - aside from the obvious one of the BBC helping themsleves to private property - is the off-handedness of the response. This level of ignorance is endemic and the BBC are no different to the ISPs and targeted advertising companies like Phorm that claim the internet as their hunting ground.

    The real question for me is - do I really believe that the person who originally claimed the right to steal content from those sites was "mistaken" - or do I think there's someone at the BBC thinking "We would have have got away with it if it wasn't for those pesky kids"?

    At the very least, why was someone so ignorant in a position where they could respond to a enquiry that had possible legal implications for the BBC - ones that might involve them being sued for money that's coming out of our pockets?

    The "Oops!" defence is starting to wear a bit thin - BT and Phorm pulled it, Google used it, News Interntional is trying to use it.

    The whole situation is simple and obvious - keep your thieving hands to yourselves. Just because we place our personal, copyrighted property where people can view it, doesn't mean that big corporations and companies can help themselves. I'm sick of being told that we - the public - we're "begging for it".

  • Comment number 27.

    The Lightman Judgment applies to just this scenario. The law is contained in the 1988 Copyright Act and for the BBC to have a policy to break the law makes them no different than looters. As it is a deliberate policy perhaps 4 years in prison would make them change.

    It is rumoured that the Banier case cost the Sun newspaper £50,000 plus legal costs.

  • Comment number 28.

    Well, maybe if you - and the rest of the junkies on the BBC Editorial Team - could just manage to wean youself off this nasty drug called Twitter, this sort of thing wouldn't be a problem?

    Seriously - I'm this close to writing a complaint to OFCOM on this matter, because I'm getting increasingly fed up of seeing you people piddle all over your own advertising regulations by using licence-payers' money to blatantly promote what is, at the end of the day, a private commercial enterprise.

    You've got a month to either do something about it, or at least address this matter in some way - it has, after all, been brought up a number of times in these blogs by various different people - then I'm making my complaint. I advise anybody else concerned about this to do the same.

  • Comment number 29.

    The origin of the material (whether Twitter or Facebook or any 'social network' or any private commercial enterprise) is not pertinent to this discussion. The substance of this issue concerns the reproduction of material by the BBC that the BBC does not have a legal right to reproduce unless and until it goes through established processes.


  • Comment number 30.

    With the BBC ´strapped for cash´ did you have to pay ´Getty Images´ for use of someone photographing ELEPHANTS ?

    --a ´Getty Images´ contract ?

    --Hardly money saving -- a photo of a BBC employee photographing another employee

    -- would have been sufficient!

  • Comment number 31.

    So if I'm reading this correctly, you are saying that as a challenge was not there to stop you using the photos, you think it's OK to just take them anyway. Comparing that to recent events, I fail to see how this differs from, say, someone walking out of an electronics store with a 40" LCD TV because nobody was there quick enough to charge them.

    Your response is then basically paraphrased, thus: If the population is looting in the real world, it's OK for us to go "digital looting"... That's just disgusting!

  • Comment number 32.

    @Jason Coulls. I actually like your very succint but accurate summary. I would like the BBC Editorial team, to think on this.

    Hats off to you Jason.

  • Comment number 33.

    What happened was this:

    A load of wrong minded folk opportunistically used some warm evenings and social media, combined with a police shooting to go off a-looting, capitalising on the inability of police to apply resources.

    Well, swiftly planned it was but effective, but a little silly. Participants will regret it as many will go to jail. The public will carry the bill for the repair one way or another through tax, insurance premiums and prices. The participants will be jailed and appeal their sentences at the public's expense. The cost will be a few hundred million.

    At the same time, elsewhere in the world another bunch of characters used a credit re-rating in the US, some non-news about the EU, weak markets due to holidays, using social and internet media to concertedly 'short' the capital markets to the effect of several hundred billion. They looted the markets remorselessly. Those left to pay the bill are the public - every one of which - except those who do not pay tax or save for pensions -through slashed pension values, losses on investment, greater job insecurity, asset value losses, inflation, higher tax.

    Who are the criminals? They both had the same intent, only one lot was far more calculated.

    The first group are lambasted by politicians.

    The second are heroes of capitalism. Not a squeak from the politicians.

    Well, you could say lets loot the rich legal looters to pay for the poor looters actions, but its not on the agenda. It won't happen.

    The conclusion to the wise is: If politicians think Western democracies can remain governable by current government systems in the face of new media that allows their populations to act on their own agenda, and to change that agenda without warning, they need to think again.

  • Comment number 34.

    "Online" does not automatically mean "in the Public Domain". C'mon BBC, if your lawyers are any good, they should have told you that already! If I copy an image I found online, and post it on my own site without asking the creator's permission, I'm guilty of copyright infringement. So why aren't you?

    And unless the content creator specifically states that you can use the image for free, then you should pay the going rate. And personally, if someone stole any of my work and published it before contacting me, I'd charge them double.

    I accept that there may be some "exceptional circumstances", where crediting a photographer may endanger their life, but that's still no excuse for use prior to consent, or lack of payment.

    You'll change your tune when someone sues you, I suspect.

  • Comment number 35.

    Copyright and IT lawyer here.

    The legal issue is whether when you post on twitter you are giving permission to further publiciation and how much further publication - ie what is the extent of any implied licence. I just read the Twitter terms and conditions. All they say is that if you believe your copyright has been b reached contact them etc and that "We encourage and permit broad re-use of Content. The Twitter API exists to enable this."

    The BBC knows that in general if they use an image without permission they breach copyright law. Those whose images are used can claim damages which would be the fee that would reasonably charged for charging the BBC to use the image.

    The BBC make no mention of paying fees here but they will know that attribution does not remove the requirement to pay a royalty unless some implied licence can be found.

    The biggest issues will arise when an image become iconic of the disaster concerned - eg the picture of Polish lady jumping from the burning building. If I were that photographer I would be looking for some royalties from those who used the image (unless he had posted it on line and said you are free to use this without paying any fees).

  • Comment number 36.

    The BBC are going for a risk based approach, most of the time they will get away with it, when they don't their lawyers will step in.
    Lawyers like to justify their presence with this approach, instead of just following the law they look at the chances of anything bad happening and how much it will cost and advise accordingly.

    Anyway here are my points:
    1. Copyright law: AFP vs Morel - AFP took his images of Haiti earthquake from Twitpic and sold them around the world, he is taking legal action against them.

    2. Fact checking: without contacting the photographer how will the BBC verify that the images are of what is claimed? And if they cannot get specific information about an image why is there such a strong public interest in using that particular image?

    3. Public interest: what exactly is this anyway? if the BBC doesn't use a picture in its story will all of our heads explode? because we are just that interested.
    Pictures aren't always necessary for well written, objective, fact based news.


    And in the interests of transparency how much does the BBC's Getty subscription cost?

  • Comment number 37.

  • Comment number 38.

    In the past two days dozens of missiles were launched from Gaza and hit main cities in Israel,Hitting Among other a high-school sports hall.
    Why aren't you covering the dozens of missiles shooting on Israeli civilians?

  • Comment number 39.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 40.

    How can a group ask the UN to declare a state on land that the UN already declared a state 63 years ago?

  • Comment number 41.

    The West Bank was declared by the UN as part of Israel in 1948. Jordan took the West Bank from Israel after the War of Independence. Israel took it back during the six days war. Now, the PLO wants to go to the UN for statehood...the question is...How can a group ask the UN to declare a state on land that the UN already declared a state 63 years ago?

  • Comment number 42.

    I'm not sure why so many of you whinge about the BBC
    and its outstanding output both domestically and on the
    world service. Its the best you are ever likely to get and under the current Tory cut backs in financing the BBC your efforts would be far more productive in lobby
    with your local member to support this British icon and preserve the high standards that have thus far been achieved by the BBC. I can assure you that here in Australia for instance it is really the only connection we
    have with intelligent, factual and professional broadcasting.

  • Comment number 43.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 44.

    I do a bit of photography and sometimes come accross my work on other people's blogs etc. It happened only the other day.

    Sometimes it is impossible to identifiy the copyright holder for images on the internet - particularly when the image has been throught several hands.

    Once informed, people should attribute properly or remove the image if asked. If someone has made money from the image then the copyright holder should retrospectively get a fair share.

    You can't expect people to completely avoid the use of 'orphan' images.

    Personally I think the BBC policy is reasonable.

  • Comment number 45.

    Interesting topic.

    Would have loved to see what '17. At 13:58 16th Aug 2011, bbcextortion' and '43. At 23:22 28th Aug 2011, ProtestAgainstTheBBCIgnoringItsCritics' actually wrote and/or discover what 'rules' they broke, but actually the solution adopted does speak volumes in its own right.

    A very 'unique' organisation, indeed.


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