"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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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.