Why Your Eiffel Tower Photos May Be Illegal

Instagram is filled with beautiful photos of the Eiffel Tower. Many show the Iron Lady basking in the light of day, while others capture the iconic monument lit up at night.

But did you know the latter sort of image may technically violate French law?

Engineer Gustave Eiffel’s namesake tower first opened to the public in 1889. Under French law, copyright protection lasts for the duration of the copyright holder’s life, plus an additional 70 years. Eiffel passed away in 1923, so the Eiffel Tower entered the public domain in 1993.

There are thus no major copyright concerns when it comes to daytime Eiffel Tower photography. But at night, the tower lights up ― and that lighting is considered a “separate artistic installation” with protections of its own. In 1985, Pierre Bideau debuted his nighttime lighting system, which illuminates the tower after sundown and entertains viewers with an hourly twinkling.

The website of the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel, the organization that manages the Eiffel Tower, states: “The various illuminations of the Eiffel Tower (golden illumination, twinkling, beacon and events lighting) are protected. The use of the image of the Eiffel Tower at night is therefore subject to prior authorization by the SETE. This use is subject to payment of rights, the amount of which is determined by the intended use, the media plan, etc.”

Photos like this one are subject to usage fees.

Given that whole lifetime-plus-70-years rule, nighttime images of the lit-up Eiffel Tower may run into copyright challenges for decades to come.

The good news for tourists is that these legal provisions are generally geared toward commercial usage ― like selling photo prints and postcards, publishing images in magazines and peddling them to stock photo companies. So you probably don’t need to ask the SETE for permission to send your family the lovely Eiffel Tower light show photos you snapped with your iPhone.

In 2016, France updated its copyright laws to include a limited freedom of panorama, which is an exception to copyright law for works of architecture and sculpture that exist in permanent places. (France had initially opted not to codify these sorts of provisions of the European Union’s 2001 Copyright Directive, Article 5.)

Basically, the update allows for noncommercial photos of copyrighted buildings, though there isn’t a clear definition of what counts as “commercial use.” Still, as long as there’s no monetary benefit attached to your iPhone pics of the Eiffel Tower light show, you should be in the clear. Even the SETE website notes that “views of the Eiffel Tower taken by private individuals for private use do not require prior agreement.”

In the age of Instagram influencers and "personal brands," what is private and what is commercial?

In the age of Instagram influencers and “personal brands,” what is private and what is commercial?

However, the private-vs.-commercial distinction has grown murky in the age of social media, especially when you look at Instagram influencers and “personal brands.” There’s also the question of whether image distribution on a social media platform like Facebook automatically constitutes a form of commercial use.

“While users may think the photos they have uploaded onto Facebook belong to them, the user in fact gives the company a non-exclusive, transferable and payment-free global license to use that content however it likes, until their account is deleted,” a 2016 Politico article on EU copyright law notes. Under Facebook’s terms, “users grant the company permission to use their content and information in connection with commercial use,” the article says.

As Marietje Schaake, a member of the European Parliament for the Netherlands, told Politico, “New legal challenges have emerged because so many pictures people take are uploaded on social media, which is considered ‘publishing.’”

For now, you probably don’t have to worry about your personal social media photos. The SETE is hardly sending cease-and-desist letters to every tourist who’s posted nighttime Eiffel Tower pics on Instagram ― and given the logistical considerations, that’s unlikely to change.

Still, with the ambiguities in the law and the gray areas of social media, you never know…

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