China Firm’s Theft of First Ever Photo of Black Hole


On 10 April 2019, the European Southern Observatory issued the first ever photograph of a black hole, but as with any historic photograph, there are those who seek to profit by claiming ownership of the work.

Taken by the Event Horizon Telescope, a planet-scale array of eight ground-based radio telescopes with the primary aim of snapping such a pic, scientists from over 30 institutions worked together to accomplish the goal.

The numerous efforts finally paid off and the European Southern Observatory (ESO) published the image accompanied by the following wording; “Unless specifically noted, the images, videos, and music distributed on the public ESO website, along with the texts of press releases, announcements, pictures of the week, blog posts and captions, are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License”.

The aforesaid standard of copyright usage is called “CC by 4.0”, under which one is free to:

(i) Share — Copy and redistribute the material in any medium or format;

(ii) Adapt — Remix, transform, and build upon the material for any purpose, even commercially.

This license is also acceptable for Free Cultural Works, the licensor cannot revoke these freedoms as long as you follow the license terms, which includes:

(i) Attribution — You must give appropriate credit, providing a link to the license, and indicate if changes were made. You may do so in any reasonable manner, but not in any way that suggests the licensor endorses you or your use.

(ii) No additional restrictions — You may not apply legal terms or technological measures that legally restrict others from doing anything the license permits.

Therefore, generally speaking, anyone can use the picture of the black hole in the case that they respect the attribution right and state the source of annotation.

However, one of China’s biggest photo agencies and provider of stock imagery, Visual China, added the black hole photo to its image bank with the following note; “This is an edit image. In case of any commercial use, please kindly call 400-818-xxxx or consult a customer representative”. 

Commercial use generally includes advertising, promotion and other use scenarios, but the fact remains that anyone has the right to use the picture of the black hole as long as he/she indicates from where it comes. This was not lost on the Communist Youth League, who screenshot the above and posted it on Weibo. In the ramifications that followed, it also came to light that Visual China had been also breaking the law by selling images of the Chinese flag, as well as the logos of search engine Baidu and the Chinese police.

As reported by the South China Morning Post,

“In the statement to shareholders, VCG [Visual China Group] said it had decided to close its website to ‘thoroughly rectify the problems’”.

Yet, it was the picture of a black hole, successfully taken due to years of efforts from a vast number of scientists, that drew the most public ire. Its copyright shall not be limited to one entity and companies such as Visual China shall not be endured in their seeking to gain profit from it. After all, the photo of the black hole has become the wealth of all mankind.

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Legal columnist Carlo D’Andrea is Chair of the Legal & Competition Working group of the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China; Shanghai Chapter, Coordinator of the Nanjing Working Group of the Italian Chamber of Commerce in China and has taught Chinese law (commercial and contractual) at Rome 3 University. 法律作家代开乐担任中国欧盟商会上海分会法律与竞争工作组主席,中国意大利商会劳动集团的协调员与曾经在罗马三大担任企业咨询课程中中国商法、合同法的课程教授。