Is copyright reform a death sentence for freelancers?

Tuesday 30 April 2013

As the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act comes into force over the next couple of years, a number of large-scale reforms are expected to make a huge impact on the labour market. Shareholder votes deciding directors’ pay and the infamous ‘rights for shares’ scheme are among the measures making headlines, but for many freelancers in the creative industries a far bigger concern is the future of copyright law, one of the few provisions in the legislation which could directly affect their livelihoods.

Under the terms of the new law, so-called ‘orphan’ works, whose creators cannot be found or contacted, are placed into an ‘extended collective licensing scheme’ and become automatically free for use. As long as the user can prove that they have performed a “diligent search” for the original author of the work - which could be an image, text, audio recording or anything else normally protected by copyright - they can use the piece freely.

Given the amount of content uploaded to the internet every day, there has been widespread concern among creative professionals about the danger this poses to their livelihood. In particular, the photography industry has been up in arms. Beforehand, although the legal process was costly and time-consuming, it was possible for the owner to pursue anyone who used a work without permission. But the new legislation, according to a number of industry figures, could mean that any photograph, text or other media posted online without any metadata attached is free to be used by anyone.

This news is particularly worrying for the creative industries in light of the fact that most social media uploaders actually strip out metadata - for many freelance photographers and designers, the fear is that anything they post to social media is now available for commercial use.

It might not be surprising that the act has been nicknamed the ‘Instagram Act’ - and of course, the act will affect amateurs as well as professionals who post work they have created online. Controversy has surrounded the law since it was first proposed. In January, a group of 73 individuals and organisations came together to send a joint letter to the House of Lords making clear their opposition to the proposals.

The group, which included the Royal Photographic Society, British Pathé and Associated Press, warned that those who would suffer most were the creative practitioners who traded alone such as illustrators, performers and photographers, whose work is most easily orphaned because it tends to appear within other works.

Photography blogger Edmond Terakopian described himself as “disgusted” at the new laws, which he claims detract from the basic human right to earn a living by taking away the ability to gain from the licensing of their own works - an income stream which constitutes the bulk of some professionals’ earnings.

Writing in the New Statesman, Alex Hern points out that it would take “some shady dealings” before the point was reached where “most digital images on the internet” were free to be exploited, as some have warned. But he also notes that there is clear potential for abuse of the legislation, which demonstrates a power shift away from artists and towards publishers. Time will tell what the impact will be on the freelance community, but industry fears are unlikely to fade quickly.

By Victoria McDonnell

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