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How the anti-copyright lobby makes big business richer

A Photo Journalist explains how

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Comment We're continually being told the Internet empowers the individual. But speaking as an individual creative worker myself, I'd argue that all this Utopian revolution has achieved so far in my sector is to disempower individuals, strengthen the hand of multinational businesses, and decrease the pool of information available to audiences. All things that the technology utopians say they wanted to avoid.

I'm a freelance professional photographer, and in recent years, the internet 'economy' has devastated my sector. It's now difficult to make a viable living due to widespread copyright theft from newspapers, media groups, individuals and a glut of images freely or cheaply available on the Web. These have combined to crash the unit cost of images across the board, regardless of category or intrinsic worth. For example, the introduction of Royalty Free 'microstock', which means you can now buy an image for $1.00, is just one factor that has dragged down professional fees.

I already hear you telling me to stop crying into my beer as the world doesn't owe me a living, and that expanding imagery on the Web has democratised the medium. I'd partially agree with both arguments, as in my work of newspaper and magazine photojournalism you're only as good as your last picture, and photojournalism in recent years has become infected with an unhealthy sense of elitism and entitlement which could do with a good kick up the arse.

So what's the problem? Well, lets look at one trend which would appear to suggest more "democracy" in the media - but actually doesn't - and that's 'User Contributed Content', or 'Citizen Journalism'.

The mainstream media has propagandized hard for Citizen Journalism ever since the mobile phone images of the July 7th London bombings, but sadly, this enthusiasm has little to do with journalism or democratising the media..

User Contributed Content should be more accurately termed 'Audience Stolen Content', because media groups rarely pay for Citizen Journalism images and more often than not, either claim the copyright or an all-encompassing license from contributors, when they send their pictures in. That's a copyright grab in all but name.

Only a fraction of the savings or additional income derived from publishing and syndicating user-contributed images is then actually reinvested in journalism. Most of it simply helps pay the media company's shareholder dividend. Massive newspaper job losses and wage cuts have cut a swathe through newsrooms this year and the slack is often taken up by stolen content, stolen from their own readers.

So much for media "democracy". Some newspapers and magazines are enthusiastically accepting such "content", simply because it's cheap or free, and the quality of the content largely reflects that.

Such a move dishonestly offers a false 'interactivity' between the publisher and audience, shows contempt for readers by assuming they'll accept rubbish, and adds insult to injury by encouraging them to produce the very stuff they'll be seeing - and paying for nothing.

It's a race to the bottom, and is a fundamental failure by publishers to invest in their businesses for their readers benefit. It has consequently put massive pressure on professional photographers, who have to reduce their rates, or submit to copyright grabs themselves in order to get work, which is drying up and being replaced by stolen audience content.

Quite how putting professional photographers and journalists on the dole is supposed to increase the quality of public knowledge of events, or the overall 'creative commons' escapes me at present, because despite the ongoing commodification of images, not all images are equal.

You won't see any mobile phone images from Darfur any time soon for example, and as one contributor put it, to a recent Center of Citizen Media weblog entry predicting the 'Decline of the Professional Photojournalist':

"9/11 generated a tremendous amount of citizen content, but it is very obvious to me that professionals ruled that event without question. Citizens in general do not have the stomach, the dedication or the brains to stick with it"

True 'citizen journalists' are people like Iraqi news journalists working where western photographers dare not go, to document the destruction of their homeland. Despite putting themselves and their families in peril 24 hours a day, most if not all of them earn a pittance and many relinquish their copyright on images and stories which make the front pages of the worlds newspapers. Just this year alone, 32 have died.

Baghdad has a mobile phone network, but mobile phone image gathering is virtually unknown (unless it's execution footage), as it would be tantamount to a death sentence for most residents. Instead, another form of journalism keeps us passively 'informed' from only one perspective - embedding.

In November 2001, I photographed a protracted gun battle in Kunduz, Afghanistan alongside a notable French war photographer. After transmitting his images for the day, he received an email from his photo-agency, telling him that financial support to cover stories would no longer be provided, and his relationship with them was being 'restructured', because it had been acquired by a corporation.

A report last year in the New York Review of Books pointed out that weakening investigative journalism has far more profound implications for democracy.

OK, never mind the citizens, what about me? Well, I, and people like me are being robbed too.

Probably by you.

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