The BGH, the "circulation" of images and a "psychogram of a murderer"

In a decision of 7 December 2010, the German Bundesgerichtshof has decided that an image archive agency which provides images from its archives to an (external) press outlet has no duty to examine the lawfulness of a final press report which uses these images as illustration, (case references: VI ZR 30/09 and VI ZR 34/09 of 7 December 2010)

What had happened? The Bundesgerichtshof's press release of 7 December 2010 tells us as follows (summary and strictly unofficial translation by the IPKat).

The defendant in the proceedings operated a commercial image archive which press and media outlets used for sourcing images. The claimant, who had been convicted for several killings and murders, has been serving a life imprisonment sentence since 1983. German media had extensively reported about the claimant's crimes in the 1950s, 1960s and early 1980s. Upon a request by German Playboy magazine, the defendant provided the magazine with one image depicting the claimant in the 1950s and two images showing the claimant in the 1960s. Playboy magazine then used the images to illustrate a feature article about the claimant under a title which roughly translates into "The file ….psychogram of one of the murderers of the century" ("Die Akte … Psychogramm eines Jahrhundertmörders").

The claimant objected to this, stating that the defendant had circulated the images without his prior consent and as such had infringed his "right to his own image" under § 22 of the German Act on the Protection of the Copyright in Works of Art and Photographs (Kunsturhebergesetz, KUG). The claimants were of the view that their actions were protected by the human of right of freedom of the press under Article 5(1)(2) German constitution.

By way of background: The so-called ‘‘right to one’s own image’’ (Recht am eigenen Bild) under § 22 KUG is a special manifestation of the general personality right, as protected by the German constitution in its Articles 1(1) and 2(1). Under § 22 KUG, an ‘‘image’’, which includes any kind of presentation that reproduces the appearance of a person, so as to be identifiable by third parties, may only be circulated in public with the consent of the person depicted. §§ 22 and 23 KUG contain detailed provisions concerning the protection of an individual’s image.

The claimant's law suits aimed at preventing the circulation of the images. The court of first instance, the Regional Court of Frankfurt, decided in favour of the defendants (case references: LG Frankfurt am Main, 2/3 O 129/07 and 2/3 O 90/07 of 17 April 2008. On appeal, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt, found - partly - in favour of the claimant (case references: OLG Frankfurt am Main, 11 U 22/08 and 11 U 21/08 of 23 December 2008).

Upon further appeal, the VI Civil Senate of the Bundesgerichtshof, which is, inter alia, responsible for personality right cases, has now dismissed the claims. In its decision of 7 December 2010, the Bundesgerichtshof reiterated that the exchange/provision of lawfully archived images is protected by (the human of right of) freedom of the press as protected under Article 5(1)(2) of the German constitution. Further, in accordance with established precedents, freedom of the press not only protects the distribution of news and opinions but also protects the process of preparing the process of publication, which in particular includes the gathering of information. The court took the view that this legal background had to be taken into consideration when interpreting the terms "circulating of images" as set out in § 22 KUG. A quasi "press-internal" passing on of images by an image archive could hence not be made dependant on the owner of the image archive having to assess whether or not the press publication using of the images was lawful. It was entirely the responsibility of the actual press publisher to examine whether the use of the images was in accordance with §§ 22, 23 KUG. The depicted individual, here the claimant, did not suffer any "tangible disadvantage". The quasi "press internal" passing on of images at most affected his personality rights in a negligible way.

Merpel, who is familiar with the KUG, notes that the court of appeal, the Higher Regional Court of Frankfurt, had interpreted § 22 KUG more broadly than the Bundesgerichtshof. The Higher Regional Court had held that the defendants had a duty (akin a duty of care) by which they had to examine the lawfulness of the final publication using the images, even in cases where this was "difficult" or "unusual" . While there are good arguments to support the Frankfurt court's stricter view, this Kat feels inclined to agree with the Bundesgerichtshof's approach, which appears is little closer to reality when it interprets "circulation" as an external process, with the crucial moment being once actual publication has taken place rather than the moment when an image is sourced from an archive and passed on to another press outlet. So while this decision strengthens the scope of freedom of press it also appears to confirm that interim injunctions are the instrument of choice when it comes to potential personality right infringements.

The Bundesgerichtshof's press release of 7 December 2010 can be retrieved from the court's website by clicking here, where the lovely picture of the court top left has also been taken from.
The BGH, the "circulation" of images and a "psychogram of a murderer" The BGH, the "circulation" of images and a "psychogram of a murderer" Reviewed by Birgit Clark on Wednesday, December 29, 2010 Rating: 5


  1. Interesting how Germans view murderers of the 20th Century isn't it?

    Maybe the Nuremberg trials were simply the victors trying the losers?

    Maybe I just get things out of proportion?


  2. @Michael Factor: I think making a connection to the Nuremberg trials is too far-fetched and I fear my translation is to blame here. What Playboy magazine did was simply doing an expose on a notorious killer, like the Yorkshire ripper in the UK, etc. That is what the original German title implies (Jahrhundertmoerder), "a particularly notorious serial killer" would perhaps conceptially closer to what the original says. I can see what prompted your conclusion when looking at my translation though. Sometimes it is hard to find the right word, with the right nuance and undertone. I personally think Germans are very aware of their country's history.

  3. It does appear somwhat strange to me that Mr. Factor (why did he choose the name Michael? Max would have been more catchy) sees fit to apparently bring in Germany's recent history in a matter related to image rights. Perhaps he was wishing comments to be made relating to the war crimes committed by the Israeli armed forces?

  4. I'm drawing a line under comments which stray from the topic of intellectual property, since this is an IP blog and not a medium for making comments that are better suited to other media.

    Birgit -- thanks for your helpful and constructive comment.

    Anonymous -- at least Michael Factor had the courage to say who he is, rather than poking jibes behind the cowardly cover of anonymity.

    Michael -- on reflection I should not have allowed your comment, since it's off-subject from an IP point of view. I gave it the benefit of the doubt since the community of IP bloggers to whom we both belong is one in which we generally tolerate and accommodate one another's views.

    Readers -- I apologise for any offence caused by any of the comments made here.

    Now let's get back to the business of intellectual property ...

  5. The translation issue with Jahrhundertmoerder foreshadows the difficulties that can be expected with a pan-european patent. While the patent may be granted in a single authentic language, anyone who is not fluent in that language will have to rely on a translation, and experienced translators will appreciate that it is not always possible to provide exact translations into other languages.

    Prompted by having recently seen a communication from the EPO in which the examiner, evidently not aware of the very real distinction in English between the adjective "one" and the indefinite article "a", has asserted that "a" means "one and only one".


All comments must be moderated by a member of the IPKat team before they appear on the blog. Comments will not be allowed if the contravene the IPKat policy that readers' comments should not be obscene or defamatory; they should not consist of ad hominem attacks on members of the blog team or other comment-posters and they should make a constructive contribution to the discussion of the post on which they purport to comment.

It is also the IPKat policy that comments should not be made completely anonymously, and users should use a consistent name or pseudonym (which should not itself be defamatory or obscene, or that of another real person), either in the "identity" field, or at the beginning of the comment. Current practice is to, however, allow a limited number of comments that contravene this policy, provided that the comment has a high degree of relevance and the comment chain does not become too difficult to follow.

Learn more here:

Powered by Blogger.