There are two laws currently going through approval in the UK both of which look to have severe implications for UK Photographers.

The first is part of the Digital Economy Bill and relates to orphan works usage rights, which will allow the commercial use of any photograph whose author cannot be identified. Assuming most people are not going to try and find the owner for images they download online, that’s potentially about 90% of the photos on the internet.

As the Copyright Action site indicates:

Copyright in photos is essentially going to cease to exist, since there is no ineradicable way of associating ownership details short of plastering your name right across the image.

One of the more galling aspects of the UK Digital Economy bill is that it has been specifically drafted (at the behest of the music and movie industry) to further protect music and movie copyrights but then seems to strip any need to worry about copyright for Photographers. What is worse is that despite the Lords Select Committee stating that the definition of an “orphan work” should be included in the bill, Lord Mandelson (who is the one pushing this through) refused on the grounds that:

“the need for flexibility in specifying what comprises an adequate search makes this difficult. That what is an orphan work will change according to evolving methods of determining its status.”

If this is passed it means that any image that turns up on a Google image search or personal website could be used commercially with the user just claiming they tried to find the owner and hoping they aren’t caught out. Time to dust off the watermarks I think, however this is a shame as ultimately watermarks go against the idea of showcasing your work on personal sites or places such as Flickr!

The other half of this story is that the Information Commissioners Office is proposing a new code for personal information online. It should be noted that the proposal is still in consultation, but should it be passed, as well as the obvious personal data items it also includes new rules that will all but prohibit photography in public places where anyone who’s in the photograph might be unhappy about being photographed. However in order to avoid impacting tourist photos, this new ruling will only apply to pro photographers. Without even getting into definitions around who is pro and who isn’t this still poses massive problems.

Imagine a demonstration through a city. There are bound to be pro documentary/news photographers there shooting the crowd. However unless the photographer walks around and collects consent from every single individual in the crowd they will now not be allowed to take a photo of the event!

Again, as the Copyright Action site puts it:

Minor considerations like journalism, history, social documentary, freedom of expression – and even the simple logic that if you can eyeball it in public, it can’t possibly be private – all are just collateral damage. At a stroke, ICO is redefining allowable photography to exclude all that contentious street stuff that has made the record of the last 150 years so insightful.

Visit the link to the Copyright Action site below for a far more extensive post, along with links tot he relevant bills. If you’re in the UK then I also urge you to write to your local elected representative about the Digital Economy Bill and the orphan licensing rights expressed within it.

Copyright Action (for photographers and photography users): UK Gov nationalises orphans and bans non-consensual photography in public


  • Jon Eland 2010 Feb 17 / 19:39

    This really annoys me – how is it ok to extend copyright on one area but not another? “This is difficult to manage, so we won’t” is a weird policy to take. I suspect all this will mean is a lot of us reducing the size of images we upload online and include larger and larger watermarks – which all makes life less rich for everyone.

    But, it’s the sort of law that will probably cause all sorts of problems and lead to large IP owners either finding a solution or way around the problem – or to work to change the legislation. I really can’t imagine Corbis and Getty Images sitting on their hands with the UK being one of the larger markets for them.

  • nickpotter 2010 Feb 17 / 20:26

    Jon, could you expand on your comment about Corbis and Getty?

    In theory they should be okay as pro photographers who place images for sale on there usually take the time to make sure all the images are tagged with their contact details and the stock sites themselves tend to add watermarks. I think you’d be hard pressed to take a photo from Corbis/Getty and claim you couldn’t find the owner.

    However, if the new law makes it easier for consumers of photography to steal images for sites such as Flickr, Smugmug, Facebook and personal sites then demand for images at the main stock agencies is going to drop (in fact this is already happening). So they may take action to help slow the erosion of their revenue through people turning to other channels.

  • jimbean 2010 Feb 18 / 10:18

    Nick said: I think you’d be hard pressed to take a photo from Corbis/Getty and claim you couldn’t find the owner.
    I am afraid Nick that you are forgetting that Getty has Hulton and Corbis Bettmann not to mention all the other acquisitons over the years. There is no doubt all those old agencies are riddled with orphans.

  • Gary 2010 Feb 18 / 10:26

    Quality and enlightening article Nick. It’s worth getting all the information you possibly can into the EXIF and IPTC tags but I imagine it’s hard to prove that a printed image ever had those tags when it was found. I don’t like to splatter my photos with big watermarks but maybe that’s the future..

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