In my spare time I like to take photographs. Mostly just snaps on a phone or compact camera - nothing too serious - so when I received an email recently about a photo of mine I was a little surprised by the message:
we are just reviewing our listings throughout the web and discovered an image you took from our hotel, the London Hilton on Park Lane, which was posted online and is live on Wikipedia and Wikimedia. It is more then fine to use this image on your private channel. However, we would like to ask you to not give permission and take back permissions given to third parties (such as Wikipedia or Wikimedia), allowing them to use this image.
The London Hilton on Park Lane
I'm certainly not a professional photographer, that photo was taken with a Nokia 6233, and most of the pictures I do take are uploaded to Flickr with a Creative Commons license. Because the images have a cc license, others are able to freely use them for their own purpose. I have enjoyed seeing my photos used in books, magazines, and adverts all over the world and several of them have ended up being used within Wikipedia.
I had no idea that my photo of the Hilton hotel in Park Lane was being used on Wikipedia as a representative image of the hotel, but then again there was no reason for me to know. I had uploaded it with a cc license to Flickr and someone noticed the image and loaded it into the Wikimedia directory.
But clearly the Hilton hotel group was upset. Perhaps they have not seen Google Maps recently?
My immediate reaction was to remind them that the image I had taken was not from inside their hotel, it was in fact a picture of the hotel, taken from Park Lane itself - therefore I was on a public road photographing a building that is not sensitive for any government or military reason.
But I am not a lawyer, so I started digging around for more information. I'm aware that groups like I'm a Photographer not a Terrorist have been campaigning for more clarity over photography in public places.
When the British government introduced the Terrorism Act of 2000 it suddenly became quite dangerous to take photographs in any public place in London as police officers tended to err on the side of caution. Anyone taking photographs in a public place without there being an obvious reason - like being a coach party of foreign tourists outside number 10 Downing street - was fair game.
I have fallen foul of this cautionary attitude by security guards and the police myself - usually when shooting video rather than just still images. Try making a short video in a public place in London and see how quickly a police officer or security guard comes over asking for your identification - and an explanation of what you are filming.
So, to convince myself I was on safe ground taking pictures in a public street, I asked a couple of professional photographers for their views on the request that the Hilton had sent to me.
Frank Williams, a professional photographer based in London, echoes many of my own views: "If you were in a public place and on public land you can photograph anything you like, whether it is hotels or people. The world has gone mad and since digital came to the forefront of photography this has always been bound to happen."
"Since the Gulf war, and especially the 7/7 terrorist attacks in London, every photographer is classed as some sort of spy or terrorist. Journalists are the only ones that can get away with doing whatever they want - as they have their journalist ID. If you are a tourist and are using a compact camera to photograph Big Ben, nobody will stop you, but if you look like a local and are carrying a big DSLR then security guards will all assume you are up to no good. I'm a photographer not a terrorist - FACT", Williams added.
This two-page guide to photographer's rights does outline the legal status of public photography in the UK and the short answer is that a photographer is usually completely free to take photographs - except where a specific law prevents it.
The example of a hotel owner instructing a photographer to remove images from the Internet does not fall within the laws of private property, harassment, invasion of privacy, indecency, national security, copyright, court proceedings, or anything else that might feasibly mean that a company such as Hilton can order me to remove a photo of the front of a hotel from the Internet.
Another London-based professional photographer, Daniel Davies, gave me his opinion - verifying the information about the legal status of my picture: "Photographers in the UK, both professional and casual are increasingly being subjected to threats like this. These restrict opportunities for photograph-taking and turn what should be a pleasurable hobby into a stressful activity. Your image, taken on public land, is in no way defamatory and shows a view that many millions of tourists will have committed to memory or taken their own near identical photographs. There can be no excuse other than micro management of their 'brand' for such a heavy-handed approach from Hilton Hotels. You are not making money off the back of their brand, the image contains no identifiable individuals and any possible argument about a risk of exposing security loopholes to terrorists is frankly risible."
The funny thing is that after Hilton sent me a warning, I went to look at the Wikipedia page and my photo had been removed. Another (better) photo of the hotel was in its place, so it might have been the work of the Hilton team, or it may just have been someone editing the page to include a better photo.
But when I looked at the Wikipedia page today, my photo is back there again, presumably annoying the Hilton communications team who are discovering that it's very difficult to control what people say about your organisation online. It wasn't me - clearly the photo now has a life of its own.
Hilton should know better. They are a big enough brand to know that much of what happens online cannot be controlled, because too many people are involved. Even I don't know how my photo ended up on Wikipedia - other than the fact that I put the picture online with a license that allows others to freely use the image. If they want to try finding the owner of every photo of every Hilton hotel on every website and deleting the image if it is not approved then good luck to them.
Note: I replied to the Park Lane Hilton in London asking them to contribute to this story and to explain their position, but they did not respond.