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.


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