The UK Government has been pushing a piece of legislation through Parliament called the Digital Economy Bill, the main thrust of which is to set out how the UK manages its digital economy for the future.
Clauses in the bill deal with such subjects as the broadband tax, which charges each household a fee so that all households can be brought up to a minimum connection speed, and controversial legislation allowing illicit file sharers to have their internet connections blocked.
But buried deep within the bill are some clauses which far from protecting the rights of the creative industry, will actually leave almost no protection against infringement. Section 43 of the DEB deals with Orphan Works. Those are creative works (photos, illustrations, videos) which have become separated from their owners. A work with no identifying metadata, no watermark. A child of a creative mind, lost and alone, waiting for Fagin to take it under his “helpful” wing.
The original plan was to allow museums, galleries and the like to release from dusty vaults tens of thousands of forgotten works, the creator of which is unknown, so they could licence them in ways that would bring much needed revenue to those institutions. However, certain politicians not being the sharpest tools in the box thought it would also be a “good thing” to encompass ALL works whose creators could no longer be traced.
As an illustration, a photo you take on Wednesday morning, post to Flickr by lunchtime, is lifted by an unscrupulous blogger or corporate marketeer by 5pm and so (because they stripped your watermark and IPTC info) created an instant orphan by teatime. Anyone stumbling upon that stolen version will have no idea who took it.
Because there is no way to trace that photo back to you, even a “diligent” search (as required under the act) would not reveal your ownership of the photo. So anyone else wanting to use that image just has to pay a made-up fee to a newly made-up UK Government licensing body, and off they’d go on their merry way, using your photos for heaven knows what.
If at some point you happen to stumble upon that use of your photo, you’ll be able to go to the Government and ask for “some” money for its use. Assuming the government can see that you took the photo, and that the user of the photo paid the government some money, or beans or a sheep, you’ll be able to claim a fee (or beans, or sheep, who knows?) This fee may or may not reflect the commercial value of your photo, or the money spent taking it, but no matter. Government knows best.
There isn’t time here to go fully into the nightmare scenario of child identification/model release/property release issues in orphaned works used on the net, or exclusivity agreements a photographer may have had with their client before the photo was nicked. Nor is there time really to go into what happens when a UK company steals a photo held by, oh let’s say, Getty – an American company with lawyers whose litigious fingers are twitchier than a Wild West gunslinger’s, and whose fighting fund would bale out Iceland and Greece rolled into one.
The Digital Economy Bill is complicated enough, but the legal ramifications of what happens when it becomes law and all starts to go horribly wrong, will make your head spin like an owl in a blender.
Whether professional or amateur, it’s important (if you care about photography at all) to contact your local MP now. The bill looks set get thrown into the Parliamentary “wash-up” on April 6th, where it will not be debated at all and will become law, so there isn’t much time to react.
Other blogs on the subject:
Irish perspective from professional photographer Neil Danton, but mind the blue language…
Scottish photographer David Robertson gives a view.