Citizen journalism pioneer said Royal scoop was too hot to handle

A pioneering citizen photojournalism start-up turned down the scoop of a lifetime when it declined to act as a sales agent for a private video of the Royal Family at home.

Scoopt.com, a new agency which sells amateur-taken photographs to newspapers and magazines, decided that the invasion of privacy involved was too severe and the legal risks too great to justify using the video, which it returned to the person who offered it to the company.

"It involved the Royal Family, a video of the Royal Family. Essentially it was private pictures and videos of the Royal Family taken for a particular event that through some bizarre sequence of events ended up with somebody who sent it to us," Kyle MacRae, the founder of Scoopt, told OUT-LAW Radio, the weekly technology law podcast.

"My initial instinct was that this is private. We then considered it commercially and thought actually this could be pretty valuable," he said. "But you have got all sorts of issues involved. We don't own the copyright nor do we have any legitimate licence to that copyright, nor does the Scoopt member who sent it to us. Do we have an over-riding public interest story? Is it worth it? Is this going to change the nature of the Monarchy in Britain?"

"If any of that is true then, yes, we put it out to market, if it shows some kind of blatant hypocrisy on the part of the Royal Family then great, we've got a news story. In this case it was just completely harmless, it was innocuous, it was nice," said MacRae. "We weighed all that up and 24 hours later we just decided we weren't going to handle this."

Scoopt was established 18 months ago in order to represent people who used cameras and phones to capture important news events or celebrity gaffes. As cheap digital cameras and camera phones have spread, so has so-called 'citizen media', where ordinary people provide the pictures and videos used by mainstream outlets, often for significant fees.

"We're the broker between members of the public and mainstream media," MacRae said. "So if somebody happens to get a newsworthy photograph or video and they want to make some money out of that it's very, very hard for the man in the street to deal directly with the press, so they come through us and we then licence that content commercially, at professional prices."

Copyright stays with the creator of the content, while Scoopt and that person split revenue 50/50, said MacRae.

The agency supplied the pictures of US baseball star Cory Liddle's plane, which he crashed into the side of a skyscraper in New York last year. Scoopt-brokered images were carried on the front page of The Times and The Guardian, as well as by The Sun and other papers internationally.

MacRae says that his agency tries to operate ethically, which is why it turned down the Royal video, and why it advises would-be snappers to behave in a humane manner.

"We've been asked in an accusatory tone sometimes that by waving the dollar signs at people are we encouraging people to become paparazzi. Or, more seriously, to put themselves in danger," said MacRae. "I think there is a risk that people will go too far. If you come across an event where people need help then help them, don't take photos."

"A professional photo-journalist can probably justify shooting rather than helping, that's their job. Members of the public aren't, it's just the wrong thing to do, you drop the camera, you help where you possibly can then you get yourself the hell out into a position of safety," said MacRae.