New copyright legislation expected to dramatically shift the UK’s position on intellectual property has received Royal Assent, paving the way for new rules that are likely to cause an outrage among photographers and illustrators.
The change comes as a part of the broad Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, the result of reported lobbying on the part of US tech companies and anti-copyright policy makers and academics.
In the past, the act of creating something gave you ownership over it and granted you the right to challenge third parties who used it without your permission. However, the new law allows so-called “orphan works” - that is, images whose identifying information is missing - to be used by anyone, even for commercial purposes. And since most images on the Internet are stripped of identifying details, the law will affect anyone who uploads images to sites such as Facebook, Flickr and Instagram - even if they don’t know it yet.
Under the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, anyone can use any “orphan” image, as long as they attempt a “diligent search” to identify the work. In other words, your personal work could end up on a company’s website or advertisement without your permission, and without repercussions for the company in question.
Rather than allowing members of the public to opt-in to allowing their work to be used by third parties, the opposite approach is being taken here; users who do not want their work to be exploited will have to register each image for copyright, a cumbersome and as yet undefined process.
"People can now use stuff without your permission," photo rights campaigner Paul Ellis warned, speaking to the Register. "To stop that you have to register your work in a registry - but registering stuff is an activity that costs you time and money. So what was your property by default will only remain yours if you take active steps, and absorb the costs, if it is formally registered to you as the owner."
"The mass of the public will never realise they've been robbed," he added.
How exactly the new law will manifest itself is unclear, but public reaction over the next few months will help determine how it plays out.