Over the last two weeks, two interesting copyright-related stories have appeared in online news reports. Both involve big media companies and small users, but not in the way we usually expect. In both instances, the large media companies “pirated” content instead of the users, and they seem to get away with it. This begs the question; is copyright only for the Big Guys?
When it comes to copyright, we’re constantly hearing how the big companies are spending untold amounts of money to ‘create’ content, only for it to be ‘stolen’ by people downloading it. Less often we hear of the reverse; big companies infringing the copyright of regular people. But it’s more common than you might think.
Let’s take a look at two of these stories that surfaced recently, starting with the BBC.
When the BBC reported on the riots in London, it frequently used pictures that were shared by Twitter users witnessing the events. This wouldn’t be that bad as the BBC would at least credit the people who took the pictures. Yet, in its reporting, the BBC completely failed to attribute any of the images it used, instead attributing them to Twitter.
When a complaint was made, the first response back included the following outrageous statement:
I understand you were unhappy that pictures from Twitter are used on BBC programmes as you feel it may be a breach of copyright. Twitter is a social network platform which is available to most people who have a computer and therefore any content on it is not subject to the same copyright laws as it is already in the public domain. The BBC is aware of copyright issues and is careful to abide by these laws. (emphasis added)
Everyone reading this knows that to be untrue and the BBC did too, as Chris Hamilton (BBC News Social Media Editor) later admitted.
It’s not the position of BBC News, he said, adding that that the BBC tries to clear photos before using them but if there are time constraints that may not be possible. Unfortunately, UK law doesn’t allow fair dealing exceptions for this at present. So time constraints or not, it’s still a copyright violation.
And the BBC is not the only major news outfit to bend the copyright rules this month, the Daily Mail has been at it as well. This time, though, they probably picked the worst target possible, the wife of OpenRightsGroup founder and noted blogger Cory Doctorow.
In reporting on a story about Gap and their anorexic lines of jeans, the Daily Mail contacted Doctorow’s wife, Alice Taylor, asking for permission to use her work. She then offered the photos in exchange for £250 to a charity of her choice but the Mail declined this offer as ‘too expensive’.
Instead of buying it The Mail simply lifted the picture from the Washington Post, to whom Taylor had licensed it for use on their own site.
Only after numerous emails and an outraged crowd of commenters the newspaper promised to send a £1000 donation to the OpenRightsGroup and another £1000 to a charity dealing with eating disorders. We’ll wait to see if that happens.
This isn’t an isolated incident though. The net is awash with cases of the Daily Mail infringing copyright, and one photo agency is even suing them for more than £1M in damages.
The Digital Economy Act could have made a big difference here. Under the Act, after a certain number of accusations a website could have been taken offline. Thankfully, that’s now been taken out of consideration, but how much of that was down to judicial proportionality and feasibility, and how much was down to pressure from groups like the BBC and the Daily Mail (who belatedly realised that a major aspect of their business could be quite easily curtailed by the legislation) remains unclear.
The BBC is certainly no innocent in this, as it repeatedly pushed for strong punishments for copyright violators, even noting in some consultations that even more needs to be done than is being proposed. And who can forget the piece on a prime time BBC show, where they ‘reported‘ on a study, that we had poked major holes in weeks earlier, and yet had only ‘Industry’ participants. A complaint to the BBC had the response that it was “balanced”.
The issue is that few individuals can afford to pay for lawyers to file a copyright lawsuit, especially against large media companies such as the BBC. In effect, current copyright law is a tool for the rich allowing major companies to infringe frequently for commercial gain, yet face little sanction.
It would seem that in the end, we’re left with one question. Is copyright just for the Big Guys?