"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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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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