BBC explains 'All your Twitter pics are belong to us' gaffe
Property is theft, man. So we're taking yours
Analysis There are some subjects on which giant media companies need to be ultra tippy-toe cautious. When, say, the majority owner of a satellite broadcaster uses its newspapers to lobby for a change the law, we should remember it is not a disinterested party. It may have an agenda. Similarly when the BBC covers copyright, or "net neutrality", it is not a disinterested party either; it is in the BBC's interests to seek changes that lower its costs, and add to its convenience, at the expense of other groups in society. These are political issues in which the BBC is a major player. Corporate responsibility demands that its coverage be squeaky clean.
Well, last week the riots prompted media companies to engage in some looting of their own: taking photographs without permission – in breach of several international conventions, as well as the Copyright Designs and Patents Act. This they do every day, and social media has become a cheap import channel. We dinged the Daily Mail recently for its bit of grab-and-run, where the paper attributed a photograph it used without permission to "The Internet".
Another offender was the BBC, which simply pasted images found on Twitter, and like the Mail, falsely attributed them. This prompted a complaint, which seven days later produced this extraordinary "official response".
"I understand you were unhappy that pictures from Twitter are used on BBC programmes as you feel it may be a breach of copyright," the response began. "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," it continued. [Our emphasis]
This is exactly the view you hear from armchair warriors on the cranky fringes of the internet, for whom any assertion of intellectual property rights is theft, a social crime. Ubiquitous message board spammer Crosbie Fitch makes this case: (See Quotes of the Year 2009), the argument being that because something is left in public view, it becomes public property. If only all ownership worked this way, I would have an enviable collection of very expensive sports cars by now.
"The response wasn't particularly swift (it took seven days), wasn't good at being personal (it misquoted me and didn't address the main issue I did raise, that of attribution), and was clearly far from expert," responded blogger Andy Mabbett.
The BBC's press office tells us that the statement sent to Mabbett is wrong – this is not BBC policy. It goes into more detail here. The Corporation says it will in some circumstances use a photograph without permission when doing so is deemed to be in the "public interest", exposing it to damages. Whether this remains a rare exception or becomes routine practice is very much at the heart of the debate. There are plenty of hostile comments on the blog post. One writes: "[Saying] 'I didn't get a reply quick enough so just used it'. That's just wrong."
I've also asked the BBC to explain what steps it will take to make sure erroneous advice isn't issued again, and what training and education corporation staff and contractors get on the matter of creators' rights. I haven't yet received a reply, which is a pity, because they obviously need quite a bit of training and education to bring them up to speed. Since technology has made many more people able to create than before, creators' rights don't just affect a few professionals. Understanding the implications and legal niceties of the issue is pretty important.
The BBC is just one large global media company with an axe to grind in two important areas.
Everyone's a creator
New technologies have lowered the barrier to creating and distributing creative material in many ways, and turned many more people into "creators". Technology is catching up with the ancient principle behind copyright: that everyone is potentially a creator. These rights are designed to protect and empower individuals, they're automatic, and they're internationally recognised. But we have to know our rights to assert them.
I have already mentioned how giant media companies grab material they find on the internet to lower their costs. So do smaller ones, such as The Huffington Post of course, which made millions for its founder largely on the back of unpaid or low-paid workers. For these media giants to routinely abuse copyright they need the public to be ignorant about their rights, and hostile to copyright in general. Creators, either amateur or professional, who know the value of their work to a large media company won't be fobbed off with excuses or credits. And the law is on their side.
This is where the tension comes in. The BBC, and it is far from unique in this respect, has some problems here. Copyright is vital to the BBC's interests, with a value of £8.2bn according to the corporation, creators' rights aren't always reflected in its reporting, or respected in practice.
The BBC strips attribution from images uploaded to the site. This creates thousands of "orphan works". As a photographers' group puts it, it is the creator of orphan works on an industrial scale. In its Hargreaves submission (PDF/120KB), the BBC argued for a system that would allow it to pay below-market rates, remove liability, and even oblige creators to settle for a credit rather than cash. These were enthusiastically adopted by Hargreaves. The government likes the idea, but says the broadcaster should pay market rates.
Another problem is the BBC's reporting of creators' rights issues, which is anything but impartial. Coverage rarely, if ever, explains that creators' rights are a universal human right, that these are automatic, and that large media companies must ask permission for your stuff. Or that large media companies generally should pay you when they use it. And that the law is on your side in getting payment out of the reluctant publisher. The "experts" the BBC typically chooses instead reflect the view that rather than working in an individual's favour, copyright is incomprehensible and malignant, and is used to repress us. (This is Google's view, too – see here). They are, typically, activists with an axe to grind – such as this one:
An unbiased BBC copyright expert
Pic: Cory Doctorow
Or take a look this hagiographic profile of his strange friend. Sometimes these activist "experts", can mislead so wildly, they cause the presenters panic attacks. It really isn't in the public's interest to be misled or ignorant about copyright, but with reporting like this, they'll certainly stay that way. And one of the biggest beneficiaries will be giants such as Associated Newspapers and the BBC.
A change in approach to reporting about the rights of creators as something that helps the individual is hard to imagine, given that hostility to those rights is endemic in "social media" evangelism, and that this is practically a religion at the corporation. Change probably requires a Maoist-style purge (very unlikely) or generational change (which is slow). So a lot of education is needed, and a reminder about the charter obligation to be squeaky clean.
While the BBC operates under a unique charter, that doesn't place it above the law. ®