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BBC explains 'All your Twitter pics are belong to us' gaffe

Property is theft, man. So we're taking yours

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Analysis There are some subjects on which giant media companies need to be ultra tippy-toe cautious. When, say, the majority owner of a satellite broadcaster uses its newspapers to lobby for a change the law, we should remember it is not a disinterested party. It may have an agenda. Similarly when the BBC covers copyright, or "net neutrality", it is not a disinterested party either; it is in the BBC's interests to seek changes that lower its costs, and add to its convenience, at the expense of other groups in society. These are political issues in which the BBC is a major player. Corporate responsibility demands that its coverage be squeaky clean.

Well, last week the riots prompted media companies to engage in some looting of their own: taking photographs without permission – in breach of several international conventions, as well as the Copyright Designs and Patents Act. This they do every day, and social media has become a cheap import channel. We dinged the Daily Mail recently for its bit of grab-and-run, where the paper attributed a photograph it used without permission to "The Internet".

Another offender was the BBC, which simply pasted images found on Twitter, and like the Mail, falsely attributed them. This prompted a complaint, which seven days later produced this extraordinary "official response".

"I understand you were unhappy that pictures from Twitter are used on BBC programmes as you feel it may be a breach of copyright," the response began. "Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain," it continued. [Our emphasis]

This is exactly the view you hear from armchair warriors on the cranky fringes of the internet, for whom any assertion of intellectual property rights is theft, a social crime. Ubiquitous message board spammer Crosbie Fitch makes this case: (See Quotes of the Year 2009), the argument being that because something is left in public view, it becomes public property. If only all ownership worked this way, I would have an enviable collection of very expensive sports cars by now.

"The response wasn't particularly swift (it took seven days), wasn't good at being personal (it misquoted me and didn't address the main issue I did raise, that of attribution), and was clearly far from expert," responded blogger Andy Mabbett.

The BBC's press office tells us that the statement sent to Mabbett is wrong – this is not BBC policy. It goes into more detail here. The Corporation says it will in some circumstances use a photograph without permission when doing so is deemed to be in the "public interest", exposing it to damages. Whether this remains a rare exception or becomes routine practice is very much at the heart of the debate. There are plenty of hostile comments on the blog post. One writes: "[Saying] 'I didn't get a reply quick enough so just used it'. That's just wrong."

I've also asked the BBC to explain what steps it will take to make sure erroneous advice isn't issued again, and what training and education corporation staff and contractors get on the matter of creators' rights. I haven't yet received a reply, which is a pity, because they obviously need quite a bit of training and education to bring them up to speed. Since technology has made many more people able to create than before, creators' rights don't just affect a few professionals. Understanding the implications and legal niceties of the issue is pretty important.

The BBC is just one large global media company with an axe to grind in two important areas.

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