(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.