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How the anti-copyright lobby makes big business richer

A Photo Journalist explains how

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Copyright? It's already dead

It's ironic that internet campaigners spend so much time complaining about the injustices of copyright, and extolling the virtues of a copyright free economy - because copyright is already dead. This is true both as perception and reality.

The perception is "if it's on the web, it's either free, or I'm gonna nick it anyway because, hey, 'they' can afford it". The reality is that there are now more copyright-free or near-free images on the web than copyright images. Most of them will be on Flickr (owned by Yahoo!), MySpace (owned by Rupert Murdoch's News Corporation) or the major corporate image portals. Neither Flickr nor MySpace exist to commercially leverage images, but clients now go there trawling for free content, so they don't have to pay a photographer for it. It has caused a crash in the unit cost of any images which aren't given away and which are licensed for profit.

So as a consequence, the only entities that are now able to make decent profits from photography are large corporations - because only those corporations have the infrastructure to aggregate images into massive hubs.

Fifteen years ago my sector had over a dozen photo-agencies which worked with freelance photographers, providing images to newspapers and magazines. Some specialized in sport, some in long-term documentary projects, some in hard news. Some were co-ops run by their members, some were big, some were small. In other words, the 'photo-eco-system' was reasonably diverse and a wide variety of imagery was produced by professional photographers earning decent fees.

Nearly all those agencies are out of business and now only a few major image corporations like Getty Images, Corbis - owned by Bill Gates - and Jupiter Images dominate the market and produce 'wholly owned' work - the corporation owns the copyright - either from staff or contract photographers. The work varies across the board, from high-end stock photography to news images.

If wholly-owned or virtually copyright-free (more commonly known as Royalty Free) content can be aggregated into a hub, and the economies of scale means the hub drives out smaller competitors, then huge profits be made.

It's a volume and service business now to such an extent that you could argue that the individual image has been rendered almost worthless. People either won't pay for images, or will only pay a small fee - as little as 50 pence a time for images offered by iStockphoto, an image library owned by Getty Images. All this commodified 'off the peg' stock imagery has infected the attitudes of editors commissioning 'live' photography. These commissioning editors now see photographers as widget makers, and the cheaper the widget, the better.

With mass rip-offs on the Web and the unit value of images crashing, photographers can no longer make a living independently from their work, and so are driven towards working for these corporations to earn a living. As digital content becomes more commodified, the more certain it is that only big business can profit from it, thanks to their economies of scale.

And to put the final nail in the coffin, along comes "citizens journalism".

Share cropping revisited

Amateurism isn't intrinsically harmful, but it's now a factor in penalizing and impoverishing creatives who choose to pursue authorship as their sole, full time, economic function. Instead, we're expected to work for charity.

"Crowdsourcing" is the latest buzzword, but under our present economic system its simply globalisation in practice - being the same force which drove 19th Century artisans into factories to sell their labour power to the factory boss. In this case, the lowest cost producer – the amateur photographer throwing their images onto the Web, to be 'content mined' - is also the consumer. The amateur will buy a newspaper or magazine simply for the thrill of being in print. It's the same model that mine owners used when they paid their workers in 'company money'.

Pure profit, zero labour cost.

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