The (Il)Legality of Photographing the Eiffel Tower at Night…

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Seeing the Eiffel Tower ablaze in all of its nighttime, twinkling glory is truly a sight to behold—and an amazing photo opportunity for anyone fortunate enough to enjoy the experience in person! Or is it?

During our last evening in Paris we took a riverboat sightseeing cruise on the Seine, which afforded beautiful views of the buildings and monuments that border the river. Most were illuminated by lamps or floodlights, and lights sparkled among the trees and reflected off the surface of the water. It was easy to see why many refer to Paris as the “City of Light.” Our journey culminated at the base of the Eiffel Tower where we were treated to the spectacular nightly light show. You have not seen “amazing” until you have seen this sight! I—and virtually every tourist within view of the tower—whipped out my camera and began shooting photos and video. Imagine my surprise and dismay when I returned to the United States and was told that photographing the Eiffel Tower at night is actually ILLEGAL!  How can that be? After all, it is one of the most popular and well-known tourist attractions in Paris—or, for that matter, the world! Plus, it is a public building and who ever heard of forbidding someone to take pictures of a public building? I was perplexed, to say the least. After a bit of checking online (where a quick Google search for “Eiffel Tower at night” resulted in 24,300,000 image results) I discovered that, indeed, there are copyright issues involved with photographing the Eiffel Tower at night.  But according to Steve Schlackman, a photographer and Patent Attorney with a background in marketing and a unique perspective on art and law, it might not be quite so cut and dried.  In the November 16, 2014 edition of Art Law Journal, Schlackman tackles the issue…

  • Though the Eiffel Tower itself is in the public domain—which allows for photos of the structure—the lighting design is a recent addition, and the organization that manages the structure maintains that the lighting is an artistic work separate from the structure itself. As such, it is not in the public domain and “its various illuminations are subject to author’s rights as well as brand rights. . . Usage of these images is subject to prior request from the Société d’Exploitation de la Tour Eiffel.”
  • As such, any night shot of the Eiffel Tower, regardless of the fact that the primary focus of the photo may be the Eiffel tower itself, includes the artistic lighting and so is a copyright infringement.
  • There is one caveat, however; people can take night photos of the Tower for personal use. Much like the exception for recording movies on a home DVR, French law allows for personal tourist photos.
  • Then to contemplate the boundaries for when we can safely use night photos of the Eiffel Tower, we must try to discover what uses the artist finds acceptable. (The following are the opinion of Schlackman—quoted directly—and are not meant to be hard rules users should follow, but instead a guide for tourists who may find themselves standing in front of the Eiffel tower at night.)
    • Copyright law aside, we would expect that an artist who creates such a prominent publicly displayed work would expect people to take pictures and distribute them around the web or on social media.
    • Millions of tourists see the Eiffel Tower each year with only a small percentage having any idea that the lighting is copyright protected. It is an anomaly for copyright protection to be attached to such an old landmark. Asserted copyright protection on the unsuspecting public would initiate a Public Relations nightmare for French Tourism.
    • As well, any assertion of those rights would require at a minimum a cease-and-desist letter to each violator; a costly and practically impossible implementation. For those that do not heed the warning within the cease-and-desist letter, elevating those infringements to lawsuits would create an even greater public outcry as well as increased costs unjustified by the limited potential gain. A successful lawsuit allows the copyright holder profits gained from the use or damages such as lost licensing revenue. In most cases, the costs of a lawsuit far outweigh the returns.

Conclusion: Based on those assumptions, taking night photos of the Eiffel Tower to share with friends or post to social media, should not be a problem. Even minor commercial uses such as showing in a fine art gallery, uploading to non-rights managed stock photo sites or even as part of a book compilation is unlikely to warrant any legal action.


My take:  I, for one, cannot imagine any scenario in which the aforementioned, hypothetical “Public Relations nightmare for French Tourism” would be worthwhile considering that the Eiffel Tower draws millions of people to Paris from around the globe each year. The resulting boost to the economy far outweighs any trifling revenues that may be generated via arbitrary fines levied against unsuspecting tourists. If I am mistaken in assuming such, I will have to be prepared to put my money where my mouth is…but it would not encourage me to either return to Paris (sad prospect), or recommend that glorious city to anyone else as a tourist destination.