This article had been destined to talk about the appointment of Andrew Parsons as official Downing Street Photographer. A subject upon which indignant middle-Englanders could really grind their teeth, a favourite past-time for Daily Mail readers.
However, my plans changed when I read the BBC article about David Cameron’s intended review of UK copyright laws. Might this be my chance to grind my own teeth about something? Again?
It’s taken a while for the review to be announced because, to put it mildly, the government has been rather busy with other things. However, it was a pledge of the Tories in the wake of the passing of the Digital Economy Bill (passed in the fag end of the Labour government) to re-visit the issue of copyright because part of that bill, the Orphan Works clause, got ditched as a result of coordinated, intelligent campaigning by photographers and specifically the Stop43 group. This time, the remit for unauthorised use might not even be limited to orphan works.
So here we jolly well are then, another six-month review of copyright (there have been one or two previous reviews, largely ignored) and this time David’s stated aim is to make UK copyright law “fit for the internet age.” A slightly worrying statement given that in his announcement he refers to a claim by the founders of Google that businesses such as theirs would never have launched in the UK because apparently our copyright laws are tighter than those in the US.
In the main, our copyright laws aren’t much tighter than those of the US, not that Google ever took much notice of the boundaries of US copyright law either . It’s fair to say that Google would love to be able to move through the internet like some content-consuming blue whale, monstrous mouth agape and everything in its path swallowed up whole and ready for commercial exploitation. Whale poo for sale, made from other people’s creative works.
The statement mentions the rights of creators, but we need to be sure this is more than just lip-service, especially as the BBC article states: “The six month review will look at what the UK can learn from US rules on the use of copyright material without the rights holder’s permission.”
That phrase “without the rights holder’s permission” is problematic because the boundaries of what is and isn’t acceptable will need to be set, and you can bet the likes of Google will lobby hard to have it set in their favour. They’ll assume that whatever they do, creators will continue to create. Not if their work is constantly stolen and devalued, they won’t. And as usual, the rights of consumers who have paid for that content won’t be taken into account.
My clients won’t take kindly to finding work I’ve shot for them turning up elsewhere, outside of their control and possibly misrepresenting them. And with my right to control use diminished, I will no longer be able to defend my clients’ rights over the pictures they’ve paid for.
That the review will happen is a good thing, but the starting position needs to be more positively in favour of creators and holders of intellectual property, for whom the internet has been a great way to get their work “out there” and get seen, but which mechanism has often led to mass theft rather than mass commissioning of fresh, or licensing of existing, work.
Another big risk is that as with previous reviews the government will turn to the wrong people when seeking advice from the side of the creators, just as it did in the early days of the DEB debate. It’s all very well talking to the National Union of Journalists, who have failed in the past to stand and fight the photographer’s corner, and whose only concern (naturally and understandably) is news photographers. Or the Royal Photographic Society, whose membership consists largely of people with little or no reliance on photography for an income. There are numerous groups whose focus is either too narrow, or membership not representative of the professional photographer.
This time, the government must listen to a much broader range of photographic groups and individuals than the Labour government did during their reviews. They must also dismiss the selfish wishes of those who simply find copyright inconvenient to their wants. This review could influence a law which might not change again for 30 years or more, so if the government wants to get it right, they’ll need to listen to the right people, not just the likes of Google, Facebook and whoever the “next big thing” happens to be. Mr Cameron will need to slip off the Google goggles, and see the reality that faces the UK’s creative individuals.