"Instagram act" under fire for treatment of copyrighted works

Is the Government handing your photos to media giants?

The Government's Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, which became law last week with the end of the 2012/2013 parliamentary session, has come under attack over its treatment of so-called "orphan works".

The act aims to legislate a way for publishers to use copyrighted material which has no obvious author, or no way to track down the author. In the past, orphan works were typically older media, like out-of-print books, with little-to-no contact information available. Those works still cause problems, and are covered by the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, which ought to aid plans to catalogue them, like Google's audacious attempt to scan every book in America.

But the reason why orphan works are kicking up such a fuss now is that more and more works are being orphaned shortly after creation, thanks to the internet. You can see it all the time online: a photo is tweeted, someone cross-posts it to Facebook, someone else reposts it to Twitter from there, it makes it over to Tumblr, and then is incorporated into a Storify which a media organisation reports on. In such circumstances, it can very quickly become nearly impossible to track down the original image. That's why the law has been nicknamed the "Instagram act".

As a result, the bill comes up with a sticking-plaster solution: any publisher that performs a "diligent search" and fails to identify the creator of the orphaned work can use it without fear of a copyright infringement suit. The scheme is envisaged to be similar to that administered by the PRS, which collects money from establishments which play recorded music and distributes it to artists; but since details will be filled in by secondary legislation, we don't know exactly how similar.

As a result, there are reservations about how well the system will work in practice. For instance, the Register's Andrew Orlowski writes:

For the first time anywhere in the world, the Act will permit the widespread commercial exploitation of unidentified work - the user only needs to perform a "diligent search". But since this is likely to come up with a blank, they can proceed with impunity. The Act states that a user of a work can act as if they are the owner of the work (ie, you) if they're given permission to do so by the Secretary of State, acting as a regulated body. The Act also fails to prohibit sub-licensing, meaning that once somebody has your work, they can wholesale it. This gives the green light to a new content scraping industry, an industry which doesn't have to pay the originator a penny. Such is the consequence of "rebalancing copyright," in reality.

A lot of the questions rely on the definition of a "diligent search"; if, as Orlowski suggests, it is merely a formality for any image which isn't obviously attributed, then real problems could occur. Already, it is relatively standard practice at many high-turnover outlets to crop-out watermarks on images and republish them credited to "Twitter" or "Facebook" – a copyright notice which has no legal backing – so it would not be surprising to see similar publications try to get away with woefully substandard searches.

But without some shady dealings (admittedly, discounting shady dealings might be a fool's game) it's hard to see how the act will lead to the situation where "most digital images on the internet" will be exploitable. Although metadata, embedded information about the image's provenance, is frequently stripped out on uploading, unless the image goes through a tortuous progress like that above there, a diligent search would still find the original uploader.

Nonetheless, the balance of power does appear to have shifted firmly towards publishers and away from artists. That could wind up being ripe for abuse, but it could also fix the system we have now, where artists ostensibly have the power but have very little ability to use it. We will have to wait and see which is the case.

Instagram's website.

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
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Who will win in Stoke-on-Trent?

Labour are the favourites, but they could fall victim to a shock in the Midlands constituency.  

The resignation of Tristram Hunt as MP for Stoke-on-Central has triggered a by-election in the safe Labour seat of Stoke on Trent Central. That had Westminster speculating about the possibility of a victory for Ukip, which only intensified once Paul Nuttall, the party’s leader, was installed as the candidate.

If Nuttall’s message that the Labour Party has lost touch with its small-town and post-industrial heartlands is going to pay dividends at the ballot box, there can hardly be a better set of circumstances than this: the sitting MP has quit to take up a well-paid job in London, and although  the overwhelming majority of Labour MPs voted to block Brexit, the well-advertised divisions in that party over the vote should help Ukip.

But Labour started with a solid lead – it is always more useful to talk about percentages, not raw vote totals – of 16 points in 2015, with the two parties of the right effectively tied in second and third place. Just 33 votes separated Ukip in second from the third-placed Conservatives.

There was a possible – but narrow – path to victory for Ukip that involved swallowing up the Conservative vote, while Labour shed votes in three directions: to the Liberal Democrats, to Ukip, and to abstention.

But as I wrote at the start of the contest, Ukip were, in my view, overwritten in their chances of winning the seat. We talk a lot about Labour’s problem appealing to “aspirational” voters in Westminster, but less covered, and equally important, is Ukip’s aspiration problem.

For some people, a vote for Ukip is effectively a declaration that you live in a dump. You can have an interesting debate about whether it was particularly sympathetic of Ken Clarke to brand that party’s voters as “elderly male people who have had disappointing lives”, but that view is not just confined to pro-European Conservatives. A great number of people, in Stoke and elsewhere, who are sympathetic to Ukip’s positions on immigration, international development and the European Union also think that voting Ukip is for losers.

That always made making inroads into the Conservative vote harder than it looks. At the risk of looking very, very foolish in six days time, I found it difficult to imagine why Tory voters in Hanley would take the risk of voting Ukip. As I wrote when Nuttall announced his candidacy, the Conservatives were, in my view, a bigger threat to Labour than Ukip.

Under Theresa May, almost every move the party has made has been designed around making inroads into the Ukip vote and that part of the Labour vote that is sympathetic to Ukip. If the polls are to be believed, she’s succeeding nationally, though even on current polling, the Conservatives wouldn’t have enough to take Stoke on Trent Central.

Now Theresa May has made a visit to the constituency. Well, seeing as the government has a comfortable majority in the House of Commons, it’s not as if the Prime Minister needs to find time to visit the seat, particularly when there is another, easier battle down the road in the shape of the West Midlands mayoral election.

But one thing is certain: the Conservatives wouldn’t be sending May down if they thought that they were going to do worse than they did in 2015.

Parties can be wrong of course. The Conservatives knew that they had found a vulnerable spot in the last election as far as a Labour deal with the SNP was concerned. They thought that vulnerable spot was worth 15 to 20 seats. They gained 27 from the Liberal Democrats and a further eight from Labour.  Labour knew they would underperform public expectations and thought they’d end up with around 260 to 280 seats. They ended up with 232.

Nevertheless, Theresa May wouldn’t be coming down to Stoke if CCHQ thought that four days later, her party was going to finish fourth. And if the Conservatives don’t collapse, anyone betting on Ukip is liable to lose their shirt. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.