Eiffel Tower Prohibits Nocturnal Photography

The Eiffel Tower’s likeness has long been part of the public domain. However, in 2003 it was abruptly repossessed by the city of Paris. That’s the year that the SNTE, the company charged with maintaining the tower, adorned it with a distinctive lighting display, copyrighted the design, and in one feel swoop, reclaimed the nighttime image and likeness of the most popular monument on earth. In short: they changed the actual likeness of the tower, and then copyrighted that.

As a result, it’s no longer legal to publish current photographs of the Eiffel Tower at night without permission. Technically, this applies even to amateurs. When I spoke to the Director of Documentation for SNTE, Stéphane Dieu, via phone last week, he assured me that SNTE wasn’t interested in prohibiting the publication of amateur photography on personal Web sites. “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,” said Mr Dieu.

It’s probably not as darstedly as it sounds for copyright to be used defensively to protect a building design — or even an entire cityscape — from unauthorised reproduction. However, the restrictive terms under which STNE allows photographs of the Tower to be pubished seem more likely to hinder creativity by creating pointless aproval procedures than to promote it.

Further, if the protection was ever exploited more aggressively (for example, by requiring all images of the Tower to be purchased or licensed from the gift shop), photographers everywhere would be deprived of what is a most spectacular subject. Images like this and this would no longer be possible (indeed, the latter is already — without payment of royalties — impermissible). The law of equity notwithstanding, Parisians are reliant on the STNE to use their legal rights reasonably. In entrusting the reasonableness of copyright law to the rights-holder, are we not recklessly putting our rights at the mercy of capricious and profit-driven entities?