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Say “Cheese”! The Long and Short of the Selfie Stick Story

In the wake of recent reports on the banning of selfie sticks by numerous museums, cultural institutions and sporting venues, this article takes a look at the reasons behind the bans and the legal implications of the use of these camera extension devices.
The ‘selfie’ has been firmly embedded in our digital society for a while now (indeed, we at the Cookie Jar have been known to embrace this type of photo when the situation calls for it) but the selfie stick, designed to facilitate the taking of selfies by enabling users to hold their smartphone at a distance, is a more recent phenomenon.  Whilst some may claim that the benefits of these extendable sticks are easy to see, they certainly haven’t been received without criticism.  Not only has the selfie stick provoked the coining of highly imaginative terms like “narcisstick” and “the wand of Narcissus”, the use of these devices, particularly in public venues has sparked concerns based on a variety of issues ranging from health and safety to copyright.
Across all types of venue imposing a ban on selfie sticks, health and safety has been cited as one of the main reasons for the restriction together with the disruption caused to other visitors or spectators in what are often crowed areas.  Various sports arenas such as the Emirates, together with music venues and several theme parks, have categorised selfie sticks as “offence weapons” and have further justified the decision to ban the devices based on the interference they cause to the enjoyment and the view of other spectators.  Museums and galleries, including the likes of London’s National Gallery and the Museum of Modern Art in New York, have banned selfie sticks for the same reason in addition to the risk of damage to artwork and artefacts resulting from the use of the sticks.
Individual privacy is another reason for the ban in many public places.  The wider angle afforded by the use of the stick which enables the selfie taker to capture a better background shot also makes it more likely that passers-by and other members of the crowd will be caught in the photo.  As a result and in line with the restrictions imposed on tripods and other photographic equipment, certain museums across the world are restricting the use of selfie sticks in order to protect the privacy of their visitors and staff.  Even where the sticks are permitted the strict photography policies of various venues, including the UK’s Science Museum Group, create a challenge for selfie stick users by requiring the photographer to ask permission of any person captured in the frame regardless of how far in the distance they may be.
Finally, copyright laws are a particular consideration for museums and other cultural institutions housing copyrighted works.  Although this is a broader problem related to the use of cameras more generally, the popularity of the selfie stick has added to it.   Taking a photo of a copyrighted work without the right holder’s permission would amount to copyright infringement unless the photographer could rely on an exemption.  Although historically museums and galleries have had strict limitations on photography, in recent years the ubiquity of smartphones and digital cameras has led many to revise their policies and permit their visitors to take photos in their permanent collection areas, provided the photos are for personal, non-commercial purposes.  The issue becomes more complicated in respect of works in which the museum does not own the copyright or where the copyright holder is unknown.  Whilst the individual may be able to rely on the personal use exemption when taking photos of such works, the museum itself cannot which is why the right is usually limited to works in a museum’s permanent collection. 
Additionally, recent changes to copyright legislation in the UK have made it easier for museums to digitise their permanent collections and many are making high-resolution images available for free on their websites.  Consequently, several museums including the Tate Galleries and the National Portrait Gallery in London are embracing photo taking by their visitors, including the selfie, as a means of publicity.  The introduction of the annual “Museum Selfie Day” in 2014, which aims to raise awareness of museums’ collections via Twitter, demonstrates the extent to which the selfie (although, as we have seen, not necessarily the selfie stick) has been accepted by cultural institutions.
The selfie stick story is an interesting one.  Whilst many public venues have banned them completely, generally on the grounds of public safety and preventing disruption to others, there are some, including certain museums, that have found a way to embrace the device.
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Laura Peirson