BBC social media editor Chris Hamilton outlined the policy after a BBC staff member expressed the wrong views on the use of copyrighted works in response to a viewer complaint. The complaint detailed concerns at the way the BBC credited pictures as being "from Twitter" and said the BBC should "give proper credit to photographers".
"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," Hamilton said in a BBC blog.
"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," Hamilton said.
"In terms of attribution ... 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," Hamilton said.
Online blogger Andy Mabbett complained about the way the BBC attributed pictures from the recent London riots as being from Twitter. The response from the BBC told Mabbett that its use of Twitter pictures was legitimate as the material was in the public domain and was "not subject to the same copyright laws".
Mabbett sent a further complaint which prompted Hamilton to post that the original BBC response had got it "wrong" and that it "doesn't represent BBC policy".
Danvers Baillieu, technology law expert at Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW, said that news organisations can use material without consent and proper accreditation in some circumstances.
"Images should be attributed to the original source, wherever possible, unless there is a compelling reason not to (such as safety) or if the source cannot be verified," Baillieu said.
"Of course, if users have posted pictures and have stated that they do not consent to their re-use or insist on certain attribution rights when pictures are used, then these rights should always be respected," he said.
"Clearly if you do not obtain consent before using an image you could be in breach of copyright but I think it is fair for news organisations like the BBC to claim an implied licence to use pictures that are published on a public medium like Twitter if it has been unable to gain explicit consent and sort out payment to the rights holder later, if required," Baillieu said.
"The BBC’s actions have been compared to the activities of file sharers who face heavy punishments under the criminal sanctions for copyright infringement. However the distinction between the two activities is that file-sharers take content without the intention of ever paying for it – and cannot claim an implied licence," he said.
"The reality is that most social media users do not mind if their material is used by the media but they do want to be credited. It is the principle of attribution and not of money that concerns people in most cases. People also need to look at the terms and conditions on content-sharing websites carefully to make sure that the sites do not claim too many rights to their works," Baillieu said.
Technology law news is also available from Bootlaw, a free resource for technology start-ups, with regular events hosted by Pinsent Masons.