Photography is endangered. It’s ability to return revenue to its creator is threatened. Pretty soon, there will be no more professional photographers. or so they say.
The recent news that the UK government has approved the passing of an Orphan Work bill has, once again, awakened the Armageddon sayers. From petition signing to violent blog posting and voluble commentaries, some of the photography intelligentsia have taken upon themselves to slay the despicable dragon of stolen copyright.
The bill is really nothing new. It has been in the works for a while and discussed, publicly, for a while. In a nutshell, like all orphan work bill, it calls for the right to use a photograph after a diligent search has been performed and no copyright owner could be found. Usage fees will be paid, collected by a governmental organization and a hub is to be created to permit the easy identification of copyright holders.
There are no mentions that the copyright owner, if eventually found, will loose his/her rights and will not receive any payment, nor that all images without copyright information will therefore be free.
With a few variations, it is a very similar bill that has been in place in Canada since 2008. And one that should see the light in the US and the rest of Europe in the coming years.
Obviously, copyright owners should always be compensated for their work, even if they are hard to find. However, it is unnecessary to keep millions of images with no copyright holder hidden forever. Currently, photo agencies with large historical archives ( Corbis , Getty, etc) make a fortune on public domain and orphan work images without ever paying any commissions to any copyright holder and no one complains. A balance has the be found between too restrictive legislations and uber liberalisms. While a poorly written orphan work legislation could be devastating for the photographic profession, this one is not. And the answer is not in blindfolded combative resistance.
Like royalty free and then microstock since, the digital age is bringing massive disruption to a sleepy boys club and trying to bring it to the good old days will not work.
Instead, let’s try to embrace it. It has taken decades for the professional photographic world to embrace systematic IPTC captioning. Even to this day, it is very frequent to find photographers websites with absolutely no metadata. While IPTC is a solution, it is a very poor one. As we see over and over, it is easily removable and not really standardized. For a good reason, since it was never meant to be a copyright protection tool.
Watermarks have been used for a while with a wide variety of success or failure. It is common to see websites gladly publishing watermarked images with a total disregard for ownership.
But the digital age has not just brought negative disruption. Tools like Google Image search allows anyone to quickly locate identical images. PLUS has been long at work in creating a photography registry. Stipple, even better, allows for automated persistent attribution along with live analytics ( where an image is published, traffic, etc). Even if an image is stripped of its metadata, Stipple will display the original information. Like Google Image Search, it is free.
So, instead of fighting copyright abduction with fear, knee jerk reaction and antiquated responses, the pro photo community should embrace the opportunities: use technology to enhance their photographs instead of building massive firewalls around them. Set them free, albeit with a leash, so that they can go and conquer more hearts, more clients.√
What the passing of the Enterprise and Regulatory act in the UK has revealed is the complete failure of IPTC to be a reliable mode of copyright protection.
Let’s review. Even after decades of being in operation, it is not used or recognized by any of the major search engines. It is automatically stripped by most CMS ( content management system, like WordPress) and is not respected by any of the social media sites. Furthermore, most photo editing applications either ignore it or have their own incompatible proprietary version. Big tech companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google have either ignored it or dismissed it.
Besides being a great tool to organize, classify and retrieve images from a local image database, it is hardly respected in the wide world of the internet.
In fact, IPTC’s failure is probably at the origin of the creation of Orphan works legislation. By giving the false impression and failing to become a standard in image attribution, it has open the doors to the creation of massive amount of undocumented photographs. The majority of photo professionals have diligently entered thorough copyright information only to see it forever disappear at the first publication.
Thus, instead of complaining about laws brought forth by their own shortcoming, the photo community should instead be looking at adopting definitive persistent attribution tools. After all, it is their bread and butter they are trying to protect here. You would think it would an incentive enough.