Digging a hole at Covent Garden

(image by scillystuff)

Just what are the Royal Opera House up to?

In what is beginning to look at best like a rash move, Covent Garden’s ‘Head of Legal and Business Affairs’, George Avory, has launched a cease-and-desist campaign against hugely popular opera blogger Intermezzo. Intermezzo’s crime – from what can be made out from Avory’s curiously imprecise emails – is to post pictures of ROH set designs and other images taken within the theatre.

The story is taking on a life of its own beyond the classical blog/tweetosphere and could do some damage to the ROH’s wider reputation. It has already been picked up by the website of The Lawyer magazine, and as one commentor there observes,

for someone styled “Head of Legal and Business Affairs” to behave this way is bizarre – it betrays an apparent lack of legal understanding and a staggering lack of business acumen and commercial awareness.

So what’s going on? It’s hard to tell without at least knowing for certain exactly what copyright the ROH are trying to assert. In all likelihood, Intermezzo is probably in breach of some rule even if only the back-of-ticket request not to take photographs in the house, and has sensibly agreed to take any ROH images down.

But guilt isn’t really the issue here. At stake is something more important: the ROH’s relationship with its audience, both actual and (even more importantly) potential. A blog like Intermezzo’s is absolutely invaluable for communicating to new initiates the joy and passion of an artform like opera. Intermezzo herself points out the irony of the ROH’s actions at a time when their Chief Executive is boasting of bringing in new audiences. Opera, of all artforms, is heavily coded and baffling to those not familiar with its complex idiom: if it is to reach new audiences it needs as much mediation and commentary as it can get.

Such audience relationships are absolutely essential to the arts – in fact they ARE the arts. Certainly serious legal infringements need to be acted upon and copyright should be protected, particularly on behalf of the artists and creators who hold it. But it seems to me that in this case, once again, as in so many before it, the existence of a law has been misread as a compulsion to enforce it as forcefully as possible, to the exclusion of all reason and benefit. Remind me: who’s gaining from this?

Update 1: Copyright lawyer Matthew Taylor attempts to pick apart what actual regulations that may (or may not) be in play here, covering copyrights in buildings, performances, photographic reproductions of copyright works and more.

All told, I struggle to see how anybody would think there was an arguable case of copyright infringement here. Breach of contract – as noted above – is a possibility, but there’s nothing in the published correspondence to support such a broad ranging assertion of copyright, and claim of infringement.

Against that backdrop, perhaps it’s not surprising that I can find no trace of George Avory in the Law Society’s solicitor search or the Bar Directory.

Update 2: The ROH have issued an apology to Intermezzo [pdf], and fair play to them for acting quickly on that score. Intermezzo points out that there are still things to be resolved, which she is pursuing, but it does look as though the ROH are prepared to rectify any mistakes that have been made, even if the cleanest solution hasn’t yet been found.

10 thoughts on “Digging a hole at Covent Garden

  1. I am unconvinced by the utilitarian argument of ‘in the end it’s all good publicity if it bring audiences’. It’s a big and complicated organization with lots of different people working for different reasons (all of whom should be able to extract their fee and enforce their contracts without feeling that they are ‘compromising the arts’). I do see that there’s an argument for the ROH to: a) change their contracts to reflect changes in the way that images are used, if they feel that the blogging is good publicity; b) hire intermezzo as part of it’s publicity team and formalize the situation.

  2. As with so many copyright issues these days I just feel there has to be a better way of doing things – and that doesn’t mean abandoning copyright altogether. And, as is now being picked apart by others since your comment, it’s unclear exactly what copyrights Intermezzo is being accused of infringing.

    Your argument a) seems like a useful avenue – certainly channels between copyright holders and users of those copyrighted works should be as unclogged as possible. I’m not sure b) would get us far in the bigger since it just supplements the existing situation with another layer of contracts (what does everyone else who isn’t Intermezzo do?).

  3. this wasn’t a legal issue I suspect – it sounds to me like a silly lawyer trying to justify their fees – ROH has apologised – basically they didn’t understand social media.

  4. Is is simply coincidence, Tim, or has the focus of your blog changed somewhat? In no way intending to sound critical on any front, you seem to have taken up a few of these mysterious episodes lately. (Okay, two.)

    Are you secretly (or not so secretly – since I’m clearly on to you… confess! 😉 wanting to fulfill your dream to be the [insert-name-of-superspy/solver-of-mysteries] of classical music? 🙂

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