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January 25, 2012

What the Hell is Up with Copyrights in the UK?

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Posted by Alan Wexelblat

I freely confess that I'm even more ignorant of how the UK regulates copyright than I am about how the US does. They're a signatory to Berne, obviously, and work-for-hire is not legal there. But beyond that I'm pretty ignorant, and I find myself utterly boggled by two stories out of the isles this week.

In the first story, the BBC reports that student Richard O'Dwyer has lost his appeal and is set to be extradited to the United States for copyright infringement. The Beeb has the sense at least to put 'piracy' in quotes because even if O'Dwyer is guilty of everything he's charged with, all he did was provide people with URLs. He hosted no content, uploaded nothing, shared nothing. Since when did putting together a list of URLs become an extraditable offense? And will Google's UK executives be in handcuffs on the next plane? 'Cause I'll bet you a good English pint that every link you can find on O'Dwyer's seized computers and Web site is also listed in Google's search results (and Yahoo! and Bing! and probably a dozen others).

But seriously, folks, what the hell is going on here? The BBC's backgrounder page on extradition points to some controversy about how it's easier to get extradited from the UK to the US than vice versa, but seriously isn't copyright infringement a civil tort? Since when did this get to be an extraditable offense at all?

Then there's the case of the too-similar photographs. Let's say I'm in New York City and there happens to be a traffic accident. I snap a picture of it - the cars are there and here, policeman just so, pedestrians along that side, etc. I publish this photograph and copyright it. But it's a bad intersection and the next year there's another traffic accident at that same place. A witness whips out her cell phone and takes a picture. The two images are substantially similar - major elements, composition, angle, lighting, etc. Despite these similarities I can't say that the woman has violated my copyright, since her photo is an original composition in which major elements resemble mine. Right?

Well, um... In the case as reported by Amateur Photographer in the UK, the company New English Teas has been found to be in violation of a copyright owned by Temple Island Collection (a souvenir maker) on an image of "a red London bus against a black and white background of Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, with a blank sky". Come again?

In fact if you look at the images side by side, as you can do in this Digital Photography Review story on the case, the photographs have significant differences in terms of angle of the shot, depth of focus and placement of key image elements, and in contextual and background elements. Really, they're similar photographs only when you describe them at a high enough and abstract enough level. And in fact the judge agreed that the two images were not identical, but felt that the visual composition was in fact the copyrighted element here.

Which leads me to ask my expert readers: Is this really a copyrightable element, separate from the copyrightable nature of the photo as a whole? If so, are we really in for the world of hurt I think we're in for? Because, really, there are a lot fewer compositional arrangements than there are photographs and if I can copyright, say, the composition of a rider on an animal mount just how broad of a copyright am I going to hold? Or is this some nonsense peculiar to the UK?

Comments (2) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Laws and Regulations


1. iP nerdette on January 25, 2012 7:15 PM writes...

I hasten to add that copyright infringements are not torts. They can be both a civil and criminal offence.

That aside, I think you will find that many in the legal community are scratching their heads about the outcome of the bus photo case. There was a general lack of consideration of other cases in the judgment which in my opinion would have materially affected the outcome. Take for example, the creation records case.

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2. DrWex on January 26, 2012 10:18 AM writes...

OK, so O'Dwyer looks to be going down for some kind of criminal copyright activity. Has anyone stopped to explain why his site was criminal and a search engine was not?

Glad to see it's not just amateur me who's baffled by some of this stuff. One judge taking a looping detour into what we in the US would call "far left field" isn't all that rare.

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