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May 1, 2013
British Photo Copyright Orphans' Concern
A friend pointed me to an alarmed posting in the British Journal of Photography. The column, by Olivier Laurent, outlines the potential highly negative impacts particularly for photographers of a new copyright framework that is wending its way through the British legal approval process.
The original goal of the framework is laudable: find a way for people to be able to make use of orphaned works - those items presumed to be under copyright but whose owners cannot be located. As copyright terms continue to be extended more and more work exists in this weird limbo state - someone has the rights, but may not even know it or be interested in defending those rights reuse of these works wouldn't harm anyone, but is still forbidden by the default copyright regime.
Unfortunately, it appears from Laurent's summary that this initial intention has been implemented in a particularly dangerous way for photographers and this has led to a large group of people and organizations concerned with photography - everyone from the Thomson Reuters news agency, the massive Getty and Corbis image archives on down - to try and stop this framework from becoming law.
The issue seems to be that the framework does not contain strong enough requirements on someone who wants to determine if a photograph is orphaned. In particular, it appears that an absence of photographic file metadata may be taken as indicating an image is not copyrighted. Even if the text of, say, a blog post using an image contains copyright/ownership information, image searches often present the pictures in a context-free way so you don't see that annotation. To make matters worse, many popular sites that allow photographic uploading deliberately strip out metadata as part of the upload process (Twitter and Facebook to name just a couple).
Given that we cannot rely on metadata being present, even if the photographer put it there and wants it to remain, it seems like a poor idea to base a decision on orphan status on these metadata. Unfortunately, few alternatives exist. There are registration services and even apps springing up, but nothing with the sort of wide acceptance that would be needed for efficient copyright holder search.
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