Instagram caused quite a stink when it updated its Terms of Service. Users, fearing that their uploaded images could be used for advertising without permission, spoke out against the new ToS, forcing the company to reverse the terminology to mitigate the P.R. nightmare.
And yet, no one batted an eye at the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act passed by U.K. regulators last week — even though the new legislation quite clearly gives Silicon Valley tech companies the right to exploit users' images.
The Act amends a U.K. copyright law that allows commercial exploitation of images when the owner isn't identified. Called "orphan works," these images fall under "extended collective licensing," and there are untold numbers of orphan images on the Internet, thanks to the common practice of stripping away metadata and other info. From the looks of it, simply uploading the photo or illustration to your own Facebook, Instagram or Flickr account doesn't satisfy ownership claims. People have to proactively and intentionally register their images, and there's only one place to do that in the U.K. right now: PLUS. The only other alternative to protect these works? Pull them off the Internet.
What's even more startling is that the Act doesn't just give companies permission to use the images as they see fit. In some cases, they can also act as if they actually own the work, which can open up resale or wholesale revenue. And the rightful owner will see none of the profits from that. It's not even clear if they'll get attribution.
Although many of the details haven't been worked out yet — U.K. lawmakers will hash out the "statutory instruments" later this year — the impact of this Act is pretty clear. For the first time ever, there's a law on the books that allows companies to plunder their users' content and exploit them at will. This has huge ramifications for professional photographers and illustrators, as well as amateurs and anyone else who shares or showcases their work using social media.
Let's hope this isn't the beginning of a trend. After all, Silicon Valley, radical bureaucrats and even high-minded academics lobbied for the Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act, and to think they aren't doing this in other countries would be naive. Obviously, there's a commercial interest here, but others may have jumped on the bandwagon with optimistic intentions, hoping to broaden availability and access for orphaned online works. What may result, however, is the opposite of free-flowing content. If photographers and other professionals are at risk of having their life's work ripped off, they'll probably think twice before posting them at all.
Everyday U.K. users should brace themselves as well. Unless some major revisions are on the roadmap, they may have to get used to seeing their vacation pics show up on billboards, signage and banner ads.