Earlier this week, The Local reported that Seoul's mayor wants a miniature version of Copenhagen's famous Little Mermaid statue for his own city.
Rather than illustrate the photo with a beautiful picture of the sculpture – thousands of which can be found all over the internet – we chose a photo in which the famous landmark was surrounded by tourists and thus not the main focus of the image.
There was a reason for that. The family of sculptor Edvard Eriksen is known for being very aggressive about the sculpture's copyright and numerous Danish media outlets have received a large bill in the mail for using a photo of the Little Mermaid – even though it is arguably the most recognisable image in all of Denmark.
The newspapers Politiken, Berlingske and the now-closed Nyhedsavisen have all been fined for using an image of the Little Mermaid. Berlingske had to pay 10,000 kroner ($1,800) for using a photo of the statue in connection with a 2005 story on Denmark's tourism industry.
“We used a photo without asking for permission. That was apparently a clear violation of copyright laws, even though I honestly have a hard time understanding why one can't use photos of a national treasure like the Little Mermaid without violating copyright laws,” Berlingske's photo editor, Søren Lorentzen, told the journalism trade magazine Journalisten in 2007.
David Trads, a political commentator for TV2 and an occasional contributor to The Local, was fined twice for using a photo of the Little Mermaid while editor-in-chief for Nyhedsavisen.
“It's absurd that some lazy heirs should make a fortune on a little statue that sits out in the sea,” he told Journalisten.
The copyright laws stipulate that photos of the Little Mermaid and other public art cannot be used for business purposes when the artwork is the main focus of the photo. Use in media is considered a ‘business purpose' under the law. There are exceptions for using the photos if there is a clear ‘news context' but even then many Danish outlets are hesitant to use the Little Mermaid for fear of an unexpected bill.
That hesitation was on display last week in connection with the Seoul story. It wasn't just The Local that decided not to publish a portrait of the Little Mermaid. At Politiken, they used a photo of a tourist posing nearby, Ekstra Bladet used a photo in which the statue was out of focus, Danmarks Radio used a photo packed with tourists, while other outlets ran no photo at all.
The chairman of the press photographers' association Pressefotografforbundet said it was “a bit grotesque” that the Danish media needs to be so careful about using photos of the Little Mermaid.
“As photographers, we have great respect for copyright, which we ourselves benefit from. But the Little Mermaid is maybe the most frequently photographed motif in Copenhagen so it's a bit grotesque that you need to be so careful using the photo editorially,” Lars Lindskov told Politiken last year in a story about the copyright issues (which was illustrated with this photo).
Alice Eriksen, the granddaughter of the original sculptor, defended the family's practice by telling Politiken they were “just following the country's laws”.
“It's the same as receiving royalties when a song is played,” she said.
The Eriksen family has declined to say how much money they make off of royalties from the Little Mermaid.