The web is all a-twitter over comments made by Visa Pour L’Image’s Jean-Francois Leroy concerning the copyright infringement case between Daniel Morel and Agence France Presse, Getty Images and others. Speaking to Olivier Laurent in the British Journal of Photography, Leroy stated that he “couldn’t defend” Morel and “it’s not easy to say that Agence France Presse messed up.” His comments have not been well received in the photojournalism community.
Leroy’s first comment is easy to dismiss. He’s unlikely to be called as an expert witness to the New York court hearing the case, so for all practical purposes who if anyone he chooses to support is of no consequence. His second claim however – that AFP “didn’t mess up” – is far more dangerous. Leroy attempted to support this by saying “You don’t put images you think are worth $10,000 on Twitter. If I’m the witness of such a tragic event as this earthquake, I call an agency or Getty or Corbis.”
Really? Leroy’s assertion that the pictures would have been better placed with an agency likely rests on three assumptions. Firstly, that an agent would get better prices for the pictures; secondly, that the pictures would be more secure if hosted at an agency site; and thirdly, that if any pictures were stolen the agency would have better resources than an individual photographer to prosecute infringers.
The second assumption, that of security, seems based on ignorance: no image placed on the internet is secure. Not one. Ever. The best an agency site can offer is a password wall for high resolution images, watermarking on the publicly viewable low resolution versions, backed up with a copyright warning to deter would be thieves. But would-be thieves don’t care about the warning and watermarks are trivially easy to remove. And once the pictures leave the agency site, legally or otherwise, all that security is gone. So any agency site security is at best flawed and inevitably temporary.
What about Leroy’s third assumption, that a major agent is better placed than an individual photographer to pursue copyright infringements? Since 2007 Getty have been pursuing businesses in the UK for multiple cases of copyright infringement. Ironically the infringers being chased by Getty complain that the agency is being unreasonable and heavy-handed: terms like “bullying” and “threatening” echo AFP’s complaint of Morel’s “antagonistic assertion of rights.” And inevitably the defence the infringers present against Getty is in many cases exactly that which AFP/Getty present against Morel: “the pictures are on the internet so we thought they were free.”
But the interesting thing is that in three years the best Getty’s legal department has managed is a total of £26,000 from one business in an out of court settlement; and the majority of that was legal fees. Should Morel succeed in his case against AFP and Getty he is likely to be awarded damages far in excess of that. So in this instance, who’s doing better at pursuing infringements?
Leroy would surely agree that a prime function of a news photojournalist is to get the pictures out as quickly as possible. Morel did that, and, incidentally, from an earthquake that was still in progress. So if, as a senior BBC correspondent recently stated, Twitter is just another news outlet, shouldn’t photojournalists working on a breaking story be able to use that outlet without fear of their work being stolen?