Skip to main content

I Found It on Google! Are You a Copyright Infringer?

Rachael is a writer who is interested in copyright law. She writes on internet safety and copyright infringement.

To help newcomers to the realm of copyright and copyright infringement, let's start with a brief overview of the basics.

"Copyright" grants authors of literary and musical works, computer programs, architectural designs, and more temporary ownership of exclusive rights for their work for a certain period of time. It is intended to encourage authors and creators in their efforts, and therefore advance knowledge.

Copyright exists automatically when a work is completed. If an author/creator wishes to bring a lawsuit against another person or entity for "copyright infringement," however, they will usually need to register their work formally with their national copyright registry. In the United States, this registry is the U.S. Copyright Office.

Copyright infringement usually occurs when a copyrighted work is "reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner" (U.S. Copyright Office, n.d.).

A desktop wallpaper photo showing the Eiffel Tower at night. Wallpaper websites show photos of lighted monuments as their background and some make money off them as well.  Are they now copyright infringers?

A desktop wallpaper photo showing the Eiffel Tower at night. Wallpaper websites show photos of lighted monuments as their background and some make money off them as well. Are they now copyright infringers?

I follow articles about copyright law like a dogcatcher chases dogs. So much so that not much written online about copyright infringement escapes my notice.

Several articles, in particular, came to my inbox regarding an issue of copyright infringement of the Atomium monument in Belgium and the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

After reading about five of the articles, I thought the whole thing was ludicrous, and I just blew it off.

But now, some twenty or more articles later, SABAM (the Belgium copyright agency enforcing copyright for the Atomium monument) and the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (the operating company who holds the Eiffel Tower's copyright) are getting serious about this, and they are raising just enough of a stink to make worldwide news.

The European Union countries of France, Belgium, and Italy are part of the Berne Convention. Usually, all members agree to follow Copyright Law as outlined in the Berne Convention, but they are allowed to make some amendments to tailor them to their country's needs.

A Copyright Directive was issued in 2001, and because of some vague wording, France, Belgium, and Italy decided to follow the beat of a different drummer to cherry-pick which of the directives they would honor, while still remaining members of the Berne Convention.

The results have been troublesome, to say the least.

Potential Copyright Infringers?

Anyone who uses certain images of public buildings in Belgium, Italy, or France is guilty of copyright infringement.

— Nikolaj Nielseneu, EU Observer, November 4, 2014

Part One: The Atomium Monument in Brussells

In the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, anyone can take photos of public buildings to use anywhere, without worrying about being sued. This includes some of the buildings of the European Parliament in Brussels and in Strasbourg, but for a period of time, it was considered copyright infringement to photograph the Atomium.

In April 2008, Belgium banned photographing of the monument "Atomium," which was built in 1958 for the 1958 Brussels World's Fair.

So if they banned the photographs, what did they do regarding all the existing photos?

They blackened out the monument's shape in the photos which, in my opinion, just made them look silly – see the photograph below.

Per the article on the EU Observer website, according to Dimitar Dimitrov, a policy expert for the European Wikimedia chapter in Brussels:

Scroll to Continue

"If you take an image of the Atomium and put it on Facebook, that is copyright infringement. Only people who take photos for non-promotional uses on 'private websites' do not need to ask [permission to use]."

How was it possible to consider copyright infringement on Facebook, since Facebook users typically have no control over the advertising in their sidebars?

By the same token, if the photos were uploaded to their "private photo albums" on Facebook, hence a non-promotional use, why then was Facebook considered copyright infringement? The statement made by policy expert Dimitar Dimitrov just boggled me.

To add to the confusion, the actual Atomium website stated that “any use of the image of the Atomium must be submitted [to the organisation] before it is published."

So, which one was correct?

Censorship of Atomium with the monument blackened out.

Censorship of Atomium with the monument blackened out.

Who Needs to Get Permission?

If you were making money on your use of the photograph, you were required to ask permission, otherwise, you could be accused of copyright infringement and forced to cough up for monetary damages.

If you were using the photograph on a "private website," (for no commercial purpose) the EU Observer's website stated that you didn't need to ask.

I guess all those journalists who sold their photographs of the Atomium at the 1958 Brussell's World's Fair, and since then, were finding the monument blackened out of their photograph.

It must've been some chore tracking down all those photographs!

When SABAM, Belgium copyright agent for Atomium, claimed worldwide intellectual property rights on all reproductions of the Atomium, they issued a demand that Wikipedia remove all Atomium images from its pages.

Wikipedia's answer to them was to place a written warning in the place of the Atomium image, telling readers not to snap photos of the Atomium because they will be sued for copyright infringement.

I'm sure that met with grand approval from Belgium...

The website finally opted to use a replica model of the Atomium which was built in Austria. In other venues, pictures of the actual monument were all blackened out to respect Belgian laws.

In response, a SABAM spokeswoman reiterated that anyone wishing to reproduce the Atomium image in any publication or website must have a prior authorization already submitted to SABAM before posting the photograph.

So, I asked this question – for the sake of argument and not because I want to use a photo of the Atomium:

  • What is to keep someone who is viewing the photo in someone's "private photo album" from doing a maneuver known as 'right mouse click, then save to desktop,' so they can use a photo as their own wherever they wish, for-profit or otherwise?

The answer is "nothing." This law, it ended up, was pretty hard – if not impossible – to enforce.

Freedom of Panorama and the Lifting of the Ban

Thankfully, in the summer of 2015, the Belgian political party Open Vld put forth a bill enabling "freedom of panorama" in Belgium.

Freedom of panorama is a copyright law provision that allows people to take photographs or video footage of buildings, sculptures, and other works of art that are permanently located in a public space.

The bill became law a year later in the summer of 2016, making photographs of the Atomium once again legally distributable.

A personal photograph of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

A personal photograph of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France.

Below is some relevant text of French copyright law, according to Wikipedia.

"In June 1990, a French court ruled that a special lighting display on the Eiffel Tower in 1989 (the Tower's 100th anniversary) was an "original visual creation" protected by copyright. The Court of Cassation, France's judicial court of last resort, upheld the ruling in March 1992.

"The Société d'Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel (copyright holder) now considers any illumination of the Tower to be under copyright. As a result, it is no longer legal to publish contemporary photographs of the Tower at night without permission in France and some other countries. [Enforcing] the copyright has been controversial.

"The Director of Documentation for what was then the Société nouvelle d'exploitation de la tour Eiffel (SNTE), Stéphane Dieu, commented in January 2005, "It is really just a way to manage commercial use of the image, so that it isn't used in ways we don't approve."

"However, it also could be used to prohibit tourist photographs of the Tower at night from being published, as well as hindering non-profit and semi-commercial publication of images of the Tower. French doctrine and jurisprudence traditionally allow pictures incorporating a copyrighted work as long as their presence is incidental or accessory to the main represented subject, a reasoning akin to the 'de minimis' rule.

"Thus, SETE could not claim copyright on, for example, photographs of panoramas of Paris which include the lit Tower."

Author's note: Panorama views which just happen to catch a glimpse of the lighted Eiffel Tower were never considered as copyright infringement, per the Society.

Further Language From the Eiffel Tower's Website

"The Eiffel Tower ... falls within public domain. Daytime views from the Eiffel Tower are rights-free. However, its various illuminations are subject to author’s rights as well as brand rights.

"Professional or commercial use of these images is subject to prior request from the "Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel" (the Eiffel Tower’s operating company, or SETE). The citation "Eiffel Tower", the names of the various services offered on the monument as well as domain names are also registered."

By all accounts, the Eiffel Tower, built in 1889, should be free of copyrights for anyone to snap and share a picture of it – either online or in a print article.

And it is free. But only if the photo was snapped in the daytime.

Wait – what?

That's right, only nighttime photographs of the lighted Eiffel Tower are protected by copyright.

So, who would have thought such a thing – that photographs of a historical building could be protected by copyright, but only if they were snapped at night?

Pierre Bideau and the Eiffel Tower's Lights

The reason why photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night are protected by copyright is because lighting designer Pierre Bideau installed the current lighting system of 336 sodium-vapor lights in 1985. When you photograph the Eiffel Tower at night, you are violating the copyright of the lighting system itself, not the Eiffel Tower.

As I mentioned above regarding the Atomium, who was to say that, after you received your permission, someone wouldn't copy your photo or video? I think this issue was a runaway train from the get-go.

As far as I can see, there was really no way to enforce the copyright, given that the Eiffel Tower was and is such a tourist stop, known the world over, and has had its picture taken more than the Royal Family of England.

It's true that various light shows have appeared since the early 1900s, performed with candles and/or gaslight. The Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel enforced the copyright during its lifetime, and you had to write to them to ask permission to publish your nighttime photographs of the Eiffel Tower.

Freedom of Panorama Comes to France

Once again, freedom of panorama laws came to the rescue of everyday photographers and vloggers the world over. On October 7, 2016, limited freedom of panorama for architectural structures and sculptures was enacted across France.

This means that, as long as there is no commercial benefit attached to your photography to videography, you are free to snap and film the Eiffel Tower – and its spectacular light show – in all of its twilight and witching-hour glory.

Video of the Eiffel Tower in Time Lapse Photography

Sources and Further Reading

© Rachael O'Halloran, November 2014 | Updated October 2021

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2014 Rachael O'Halloran


Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on January 30, 2015:

Hi Peg, Thanks for reading this article and commenting. In reference to your most recent hub about your photo theft, I want to refer you to my article here:

Picasa is a Google photo editing program that's so easy that my 9 year old granddaughter can do it.

Give it a try, even on photos you make create like: posters, collages, etc.

Peg Cole from North Dallas, Texas on January 30, 2015:

Thanks for this informative and thought provoking article. It really does give us pause to think about all the cameras and video equipment that makes it so easy to film an event. Despite all the warnings issued before the start of a show I attended in Las Vegas, I saw several people using their phones to film the performance. I suppose if they post the video to YouTube and then monetize it, they will be liable for copyright infringement. It has become a strange world.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on January 15, 2015:

Catherine Giordano,

I see it this way for public buildings. The word "public" implies that it is in a public place, for the public to enjoy and admire. For many people, part of admiring entails taking photos. It is our right to photograph public buildings, since we do it as much to mark that we have visited there as we do to show others who will possibly never visit these places.

The brainiacs who were writing this law would have done better to say that taking photos when the copyrighted light show was in progress were forbidden (much like they are in a movie theatre) and even at that, I still say they are going to be in an impossible position to enforce this ludicrous law.

This whole issue tarnishes the word "copyright" for everyone who enjoys having one.

Thanks for your visit and comment.

Catherine Giordano from Orlando Florida on January 15, 2015:

I think it is carrying copyright too far. If someone takes a photo, it is their photo. We have a write to photograph public buildings and public places.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 26, 2014:


Thank you for visiting again. I'm working on the article, trying to make sure all my t's are crossed and so I don't get sued for mis-stating facts or names. lol Hope to have it ready by Monday.

SherriDW on November 26, 2014:

I'm looking forward to your article on copyright trolls.

I agree that Creative Commons license might be a better way to go.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 26, 2014:

SherriDW, I think that's probably the only way many of us see the wonders of foreign countries or even in our own country because of their distance from us. We all live vicariously through photos and it is a national past time if not world past time.

With the Eiffel Tower, going after professionals to be able to charge them a use fee for using the musical light show or for bigger bucks, taking them to court charging infringement with lost revenue where they can collect high financial damages over the $150,000 limit - this could very well be an example of a copyright troll (someone who gets a copyright for a work, and then looks for underhanded ways to make money on it.)

More about copyright trolls in an upcoming article.

I'm not saying the Society in Paris France is a copyright troll, but if the sole reason for securing the copyright was to add to their financial coffers for infringement, then the shoe may fit.

They might have been better putting a Creative Commons license on it and allow users to use it under certain conditions, instead of screaming infringement at every turn - even snapshots.

The world of copyrights has gone loony. This is just one case where it is proving true.

Thanks for reading and for your comment.

SherriDW on November 25, 2014:

Wow, what will be copyrighted next? I think it's great that people are able to share pics and videos with others, whether it is on a personal site or for profit site. Oftentimes that's the only way I'll will ever see some places and things in my lifetime. Thanks for the article.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 17, 2014:

FlourishAnyway, It IS ridiculous! But I had to write about it because I just couldn't get past the idea that they are going to give their best shot at trying to enforce the copyright. We'll see. lol Thanks for reading and commenting. It is good to be back, the catching up part is hard. But, I'm trying. :)

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 17, 2014:

vkwok, It's all about the money. But enforcing these copyrights will be next to impossible given how widespread the photos have been shared. Thanks for the thumbs up and for reading my article.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 17, 2014:

allpurposeguru, The Sonny Bono Act (created during his lifetime but made law after his death) added more time to copyright years ostensibly for authors to be able to profit. But if they are dead, truly who is profiting here? It was a US government coup to be able to keep stuff out of public domain as long as possible, to collect fees, as is proven by the new US public domain offerings that have NOT been granted each year up to 2019. Tampering? You bet. And this article about monuments being copyrighted is another example of it. It will only be a matter of time before the US catches on and starts copyrighting monuments in this country. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 17, 2014:

Eddy, The idea of copyrighting a building still seems ludicrous to me after all the research I did. I'll be stopping by to see what you have published. Your corner of the world is just spectacular and I am very envious of you to be able to live in such a wonderful place. You are very fortunate. :) Thanks for taking time to read and comment.

FlourishAnyway from USA on November 17, 2014:

Sometimes people are ridiculous. Having seen the Eiffel Tower during the day and at night, there is nothing like its night show. A spectacular treat. Glad to have you back!

Victor W. Kwok from Hawaii on November 17, 2014:

I agree that it is absolutely ridiculous what is going on with these famous monuments. Thumbs up to an awesome hub.

David Guion from North Carolina on November 17, 2014:

And I thought Sonny Bono's "Mickey Mouse Protection Act" was the most ridiculous tampering with public domain that I had heard about! These belong on "News of the Weird"!

Eiddwen from Wales on November 17, 2014:

A wonderful read Rachael and I learnt so much. Here's to so many more hubs for us both to share on here.


Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 16, 2014:

travmaj, the copyright business has become a very big business, thanks to the profits that can be made if someone infringes on the copyright. My take on this case with the Eiffel Tower is that it is futile, but I may be proven wrong, who knows?

I just can't imagine going after all those people who took night time photos (not private citizens, just those who sold the photos) and trying to get them to honor a copyright. To me, it is a waste of time. Thank you for reading and commenting.

travmaj from australia on November 16, 2014:

Your articles are always informative and interesting. How complicated and seemingly futile but I guess the powers that be have reasons. Financial reasons. I also had no idea that copyrighting a photo could be so complicated.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 15, 2014:

AliciaC, I think the process of copyright enforcement has been made to seem more difficult since the internet has been around. As for enforcing copyright of the Eiffel Tower, I feel like telling them "Good luck with that." lol Thanks for reading and commenting.

Linda Crampton from British Columbia, Canada on November 15, 2014:

This is an interesting article, Rachel. I didn't realize that copyrighting a photo could be so complicated! There is now even more to think about when we use photos. Thanks for doing all the research and for sharing it in this very useful hub.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 15, 2014:

MsDora, I don't think copyrighting a building - no matter what its importance - is worth it because this will be too hard to enforce, given the number of photographs in circulation already.

But in the end, I guess the only people making out is the copyright lawyers. When settlements are made out of court, it is unknown what has transpired in the agreement, but I know one thing for sure - the attorney got his fee.

The copyright infringement business has become a very big business due to the "propaganda," overly educating the public, and unbelievable accusations of infringement publicized on the web. I think if we didn't hear about it so much, it wouldn't be so prevalent. But as with all things $$, there are big bucks to be made in the suing.

It all depends on who you are. The caps of $150,000 per infringement have fallen by the wayside because of lawsuits against music entertainers who have made such a bundle off stolen songs. Those are the cases we hear about that are being sued for $3million or more. When they settle out of court, I'd sure like to know what the bottom dollar was in the settlement. lol

Thanks for reading my article.

Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on November 15, 2014:

What great job you do, Rachel. Your information is interesting and important. I understand people wanting ownership but the copyright business seems to be turning into a war. Is it worth it?

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 15, 2014:

breakfastpop, thanks for weighing in on this. I agree.

breakfastpop on November 15, 2014:

I can't accept a building holding a copyright. For me this is a non-issue. Up and interesting!

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 15, 2014:

bravewarrior, I agree replicas could be addressed as copyright infringement, but I have a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that a building could hold a copyright!

From what I read in my research, the Society in Paris is concerned only with the original Eiffel Tower light display (including fireworks).

I hope I live long enough to see how they are going to enforce this copyright, because in my world, national monuments are just that - national - belonging to the people so all can enjoy.

This whole issue is ridiculous and I wish I was the judge sitting on the case - I'd throw the whole lot of them out of court. Thanks for reading and for your views. I'm right there with you!

Shauna L Bowling from Central Florida on November 15, 2014:

Rache, this is ludicrious! These are world-famous icons. To expect people to not take and share photos makes no sense. As for the Eiffel Tower, it seems a stretch of the laws to extend copyrights from the 100 year anniversary nighttime display to ANY and ALL nighttime displays. Why put them on if they don't want people to snap shots for posterity's sake?

And why isn't the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas a copyright infringement? It's a replica of the original. Now, that's copying someone's work, don't you think?

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 15, 2014:

DDE, thank you for your compliment and for reading my article.

Devika Primić from Dubrovnik, Croatia on November 15, 2014:

Informative and always so helpful. Your idea in writing this hub is most important to all.

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 14, 2014:

Jackie, thank you for taking time to read my article. :)

Jackie Lynnley from the beautiful south on November 14, 2014:

Wow how crazy is this! Crazy world and not getting any better doesn't seem. I have been gone much too and have an email full to catch up to. I try and that is all I can ever promise! lol

Rachael O'Halloran (author) from United States on November 14, 2014:

billybuc, thank you so much for reading and for your ongoing support. I appreciate it very much.

Bill Holland from Olympia, WA on November 14, 2014:

Always informative. Your research is always topnotch. As for you being gone, I hope all is well with you now. Don't bother trying to catch up....just start fresh and stay fresh. We have all had times when we were called away from HP. People understand.

Related Articles