Wikipedia has launched another anti-copyright campaign – but it's one that experts say is bogus and misleading. Thousands of pages on the site are now plastered with an appeal to "Save the Freedom of Panorama", a crusade minted by copyright activist and Europe's only Pirate Party MEP, Julia Reda.
But Wikipedia users should save their energy for something more useful, experts told us.
As we explained last week, the EU parliament appointed a rapporteur, the EU's sole Pirate Party MEP, Julia Reda, to report on European copyright law. Europe likes "harmonising" things, and one of the things Reda said she wanted to harmonise was an exception to copyright that most European countries already have in place, allowing you to take pictures of (say) buildings in public places.
As per Newton's Third Law, this provoked a reaction. Reda's clumsy draft alarmed museums and galleries, who tacked on an equally clumsy safeguard to protect their image rights. Her draft was smothered with some 500 amendments before being approved.
One campaigner for image rights told The Register that the museums' tacked-on amendment was stupid.
"I don't think anyone is taking Reda too seriously – she's a cheerleader for the freetards. If she's not on Google's payroll, she's missing a trick. But this should be nipped in the bud. You should be able to photograph buildings without being taken to the cleaners."
The reason the scare is bogus is that the amendment is not draft legislation. The European Parliament cannot actually write legislation, unlike actual parliaments around the world. That's the European Commission's job, and we don't know exactly what it will propose as part of its Digital Single Market reforms.
The Commission receives dozens of these every year, and throws them in the bin. For example, the European Parliament recently voted to "break up Google" – and that's not going to happen either. As we pointed out, it's "a completely unenforceable symbolic gesture."
Wikipedia has also got it wrong in another way: exaggerating the "threat", as anti-copyright activists often do:
"I am not convinced that the exception in Section 62 [which protects “freedom of panorama” in the UK] is necessarily as broad as the interpretation contended for by Wikimedia," Serena Tierney, head of IP at law firm BDB, told us by email.
"It is clear that making a photograph, film, visual image of the building or work of art or a graphic work representing it is not an infringement of the copyright in that work itself (although it may be an infringement of the something else, for example the architect’s drawings). Nor is it an infringement to issue copies of the new work or to communicate them to the public. However, the making (issuing copies of, communicating to the public etc.) of a derivative work from that new work is not so obviously covered."
It's unusual for an encyclopaedia to abandon objectivity and "neutrality" and launch political campaigns, but Wikipedia has done so before when it felt its interests were threatened. It went dark to protest against the US SOPA legislation, and co-founder Jimmy Wales has campaigned against stronger personality rights in Europe. As the BBC's Newsnight pointed out, Wikipedia is not a disinterested bystander.
The site contains mostly unverified details of thousands of living people, and cleaning up Wikipedia's act would be a Herculean task. No wonder Wales doesn't want to go there.
Nevertheless, you have to admire the chutzpah.
In a few weeks, when something that wasn't going to happen is formally ruled out, campaigners will congratulate themselves on "a successful campaign". It takes some balls to "rescue" people from a problem you've helped create in the first place. If Reda hadn't made a cause out of “freedom of panorama”, it wouldn't be an issue.
It's a bit like starting a fire, then accepting a medal for bravely putting it out. ®