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'No Artistic Merit': Expert Witness Ends Belarus Photographer's Copyright Battle

  • Amos Chapple

A Belarusian court expert said Anton Motolko's pictures of the Northern Lights near Minsk did not have "any signs of creative freshness, originality, uniqueness, or exceptionality."

A Belarusian court expert said Anton Motolko's pictures of the Northern Lights near Minsk did not have "any signs of creative freshness, originality, uniqueness, or exceptionality."

This photograph, of the Northern Lights sparkling above a village in Belarus, has no artistic merit whatsoever -- according, that is, to a recent court ruling in a copyright dispute between a well-known photographer and Belarus's state-run television network.

On March 17, 2015, Anton Motolko drove 60 kilometers north of his home in Minsk to photograph the Northern Lights, a rarity in Belarus. After a spectacular and successful night working, he published the images on his social media accounts and they quickly went viral.

The next evening, Belteleradiocompany, a state-run television network in Belarus, ran a feature on Motolko's work that compared the hues in his photos to the red and green Belarusian flag. The television channel did not pay or credit Motolko, and had not asked permission to use the pictures.

The unauthorized use of their work is something photographers have become accustomed to in Belarus, Motolko told RFE/RL. "They [the television network] do it all the time."

But this time the photographer saw his images used in a way he never intended. "They used these photos like a f****ing government propaganda symbol," he told RFE/RL by telephone.

The red and green flag is similar to one used by the Byelorussian Soviet Socialist Republic in the 1950s, and is associated with the government of strongman President Alyaksandr Lukashenka, who brought it back as an official state symbol in 1995.

It replaced the white-red-white flag -- used by the Belarusian Peoples Republic of 1918 and after Belarus gained independence in 1991 -- that is seen as a symbol of the opposition.

Motolko decided to sue. "I was asking for about 1,000 euros ($1,100)," he said. But as the case wore on, he decided to drop the amount in damages he sought to just one kopek -- less than a cent. "I wanted to be clear that this wasn't about the money, that I just wanted professional respect."

In Belarus, going up against state-run organizations is a difficult proposition, but in this case the country's copyright laws were clear. Motolko felt he was fighting on behalf of the many photographers, two of whom he knows personally, he says have had their images used without permission on state television.

Last week, Motolko learned that his effort had ended in failure.

Key to the television network's case was testimony from an expert who said that Motolko's photographs did not have "any signs of creative freshness, originality, uniqueness, or exceptionality."

The images were deemed to be a commonplace record of a "social event," and therefore copyright protection did not apply. The case cost Motolko around $300, $40 of which was to pay for the expert who declared his work so unoriginal it was unworthy of copyright protection.

There has been outrage, as well as humor, on Belarusian social media in response to the ruling. One beer company came out with an "Autumn Fire" brew, using one of Motolko's photographs on the logo.

Team Brewery thanked Motolko for the "beautiful background that did not feature any creativity, or copyright restrictions."

But this is not the end for Motolko, who is waiting to see if his appeal to the World Intellectual Property Organization, an agency of the United Nations, has been accepted. "This is just the beginning," he was quoted as saying last week by Delovaya Gazeta.

A representative for Belteleradiocompany agreed to respond to RFE/RL's questions by e-mail, but as of time of publication RFE/RL had received no response, and further calls went unanswered.

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    Amos Chapple

    Amos Chapple is a New Zealand photojournalist with a particular interest in the former U.S.S.R. For story ideas, write to him at amos.chapple@gmail.com

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