“Make sure the internet never loses. Ever.” Last week saw the launch of the Internet Defense League, a self-appointed “loose coalition that shares a commitment to defending the Internet.” In a spot of ambush marketing timed to coincide with the release of The Dark Knight Rises, and boasting their very own cat signal, the IDL issued a nerdy call to arms:

“The Internet Blackout was just the beginning. Together, our websites and personal networks can mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws & monopolies. Are you in?”

It’s hard not to point and laugh at a group whose world-view is defined by comic books and one of whose supporters was so excited by the news that they couldn’t tell their cats from their bats. As copyright attorney Leslie Burns commented on twitter: “OMG… When they get out of their parents’ basements, I’ll take the IDL seriously.”

But dismissing the IDL as a bunch of juvenile jokers is a mistake. In fact many of them promote such an image as part of their marketing schtick: follow the money and a rather different picture emerges. One of the prime movers behind the IDL is social news site Reddit. Far from being just a bit batty, Reddit is a subsidiary of Advance Publications Inc, the multibillion dollar media empire privately owned by the Newhouse family, a publishing dynasty that makes the Murdoch clan look like new kids on the block. Well, how about another IDL founder, the Cheezburger Network? Surely the inventors of Lolcats fit the bill of kiddy nerds fooling around in their parents’ basement? Not quite: in the last few years Cheezburger, under CEO Ben Huh, has trousered $32 million in venture capital. Music-sharing site Grooveshark is one of the IDL’s less-wealthy founders: a mere $4.5 million in recent funding. The Open Technology Institute is a project from the New America Foundation, which boasts an impressive list of well-off sponsors including contributions of over $1 million a head from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and Eric & Wendy Schmidt of Google fame.

The list goes on and the true picture is clear: most of the IDL founders are full or aspiring members of the Internet Fat Cat League. And just as the IDL’s hipster image is misleading, so are their stated aims. The IDL claim they aim to “mobilize the planet to defend the internet from bad laws”: expect this to be dressed up in much high-minded talk of free speech and scary guff about legislation that will “break the internet”.

However the only laws that interest the IDL are those relating to intellectual property, and with good reason: the IDL’s movers are not so much interested in free speech as free content. The genesis of the IDL was the so-called Internet Blackout of January 18, when many sites, including some of the IDL founders, went off-line in protest at the USA’s proposed Stop Online Piracy Act. SOPA was portrayed by protesters as an attempt at Internet censorship, but the real threat was to the business model of sites that rely on the so-called safe harbour provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to protect them against legal action for copyright infringement. Sites like… Cheezburger, Grooveshark and many other IDL founders.

When these corporations – for that’s what they are – rant against legislation in the name of free speech it’s merely a smokescreen: all they’re really doing is acting to protect their business interests. It’s hard to raise a torches and pitchforks mob with a cry of “defend my venture capital”, but “defend the Internet” will do the trick every time. SOPA was shelved, at least in part because the protesters comprehensively won the propaganda war, successfully portraying the bill’s supporters as greedy corporations out to – you guessed – break the Internet. And so, buoyed with success and wary of a future SOPA, the IDL was born.

As it happens, there’s a very good analogy for the many of the IDL’s founders, but it’s not kids in basements. Like the spivs of the banking industry, the freetards at Cheezburger et al have developed business models based on theft. Both the spivs and the freetards display an overwhelming sense of entitlement. And when faced with legislation both groups raise the same battle cry: “You don’t understand how these things work, regulation will break the system.”

Since most legislators understand little about the workings of either the Internet or the financial markets it’s not surprising that such a strategy is successful. No politician wants to be accused of supporting laws that wreck either the financial markets or that new-fangled interweb thingy. So if SOPA or similar does return, expect it to be accompanied by large helpings of very well-funded FUD from the IDL. Perhaps they should replace that cat on their signal with a dollar sign.

Official White House Photo by Pete Souza

It’s been a while since both the media and the public displayed such a forensic interest in photography, in particular photojournalism. But since last week’s killing by US special forces of Osama bin Laden four images – or sets of images – have come in for intense scrutiny and comment. The Situation Room image [above], first released on the White house Flickr stream; the restaged – or, if you prefer, faked – wire pictures of President Obama’s announcement of the raid; the frat house celebrations outside the White House; and Obama’s later visit to Ground Zero.

All of these have been pretty much analysed to death, but the photograph that has received the most attention is of course the one we’re not allowed to see: that of bin Laden’s bullet-riddled corpse, memorably described by the Guardian as the world’s most incendiary image. One would have to have been living in a cave – unlike the man himself – to miss the brouhaha over whether or not the White House should make public the pictures held of the dead Al Qaeda leader.

Some might claim that a photograph of bin Laden’s corpse isn’t photojournalism at all of course: but anyone who does had also better be prepared to write off a substantial body of photography they previously regarded as such. They can start with Mathew Brady’s American Civil War, and proceed through George Rodger’s Belsen, Ronald L. Haeberle’s My Lai massacre, Freddy Alborta’s dead Che Guevara and beyond.

The most popular argument for releasing the pictures was that of proof: they would provide evidence that bin Laden really was dead. But that’s just tosh: there may well be valid reasons for releasing the photos, but evidence isn’t one of them. In the age of Photoshop the still image constitutes a very poor standard of proof: even if the genuine images were released many people – indeed some of the same people who claim their withholding indicates a conspiracy – would immediately set about trying to prove they were fake.

What’s bizarre about all this is that if people truly wanted visual proof of Bin Laden’s death then a much higher standard is available – or at least as available as the withheld still images, and from the same source. The White House claimed that those in the Situation Room watched a live video feed of the raid in progress. While there’s been some subsequent fudging of just how real-time and detailed the feed actually was, you can bet that at least some of the assault team were wearing helmet cameras, and by now the US administration has a full-blown multi-camera snuff movie in their possession.

Yes, video can be faked, but nothing like as easily as a photograph; and yes, all of the arguments over whether to release the still images would also apply to the video. But those arguments haven’t occurred, because while everyone obsesses over the still images apparently nobody gives a hoot about the video. In fact the only serious demand to see the video has been from the Associated Press, who have filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see both photographs and video of the Abbotabad raid and bin Laden’s subsequent burial at sea.

All of which leads to a very obvious, if paradoxical, conclusion. At a time when people trust the veracity of photography less than ever before, the one thing they demand as incontrovertible evidence is…a photograph. So next time somebody tells you photojournalism is dead ask them how they feel about the bin Laden video.

LADY GAGA performing live at Glastonbury Festival 2009 on the Other stage, Somerset, England, UK. Friday 26th June 2009. Stefani Joanne Angelina Germanotta (born March 28, 1986), better known by her stage name Lady Gaga, is an American recording artist. At Interscope Records, she worked as a songwriter penning music for established artists, such as Akon. During the same time, she began to play her music in clubs throughout New York City. After Akon recognized that Gaga also had vocal talent, he signed her to a joint deal with his own label, Kon Live Distribution.
Photo © David J Colbran

Photographers have been shocked by Lady Gaga’s latest publicity stunt. Last week Washington news site TBD told how, when their photographer arrived to shoot the fame monster in concert, he was presented with a photo release assigning the copyright in his work to Gaga. After a brief call to his editors, who instructed him not to sign, the photographer packed his bags and left.

No concert review in TBD for Gaga then: instead the site took her to task for the attempted copyright grab in a two page article describing the contract as “audacious”, “predatory” and “not cool”.

TBD undoubtedly had a good case, but  La Gaga’s grab, horrible though it is, isn’t anything like as cutting edge as TBD make out. Bands, their agents and promoters have been foisting predatory contracts on photographers for quite some time. Here’s a list of just some acts who have presented such contracts in the recent past: Aaron Neville, Aerosmith, Avril Lavigne, Bad Company, Beastie Boys, Ben Harper & Relentless7, Cheap Trick, Coldplay, Foo Fighters, George Strait/Reba Mcentire/Lee Ann Womack, Gogol Bordello, Hellyeah, Jane’s Addiction, Jimmy Eat World, Janet Jackson, Jonas Brothers, Jonny Lang, Jordin Sparks, Katy Perry, KISS, Lady Gaga, Lenny Kravitz, Leonard Cohen, Linkin Park, Matchbox 20, Melissa Ethridge, MGMT, Mike Ness, Muse, My Chemical Romance, Papa Roach, Paula Abdul, Queens of the Stone Age, Robbie Williams, Steven Seagal, Stevie Wonder, Stone Temple Pilots, Taylor Swift, The Mars Volta, The Raconteurs, The White Stripes, Tom Jones, Tom Petty, Turbonegro. To see what these acts have tried on, just click a name to be taken to the relevant contract.

One might think it took days of research to round that lot up. In fact so widespread is the practice that it only took half a dozen e-mails and a quick sweep of the interweb to find those; you can bet the list isn’t comprehensive.

The Music Photographers Network has excellent edited highlights of the worst contracts, some of which are astonishingly ambitious in their claims. Highly restricted use of the photographs by the photographer is de rigueur, while the bands generally award themselves broad free use of the images; in effect a transfer of copyright. Many take the Gaga route of a full transfer of rights, leaving the photographer with nothing. A few even contain clauses for damages – up to $1M – against photographers who breach the terms of the contract.

And some seem to be drafted by people who think double secret probation is a legal term. In 2006 Robbie Williams earned media mockery and white space instead of concert reviews and pictures when he presented a contract containing the absurd legalese:

“We shall be entitled to assign transfer sub-license mortgage charge…”

Two years ago, while facing a lawsuit from guitarist Joe Satriani for plagiarism [irony alert!], Coldplay tossed this at photographers:

“You hereby transfer and assign to us with full title guarantee the entire copyright and all extensions and renewals throughout the world (including by way of present assignment of future rights) and all rights of a similar nature in the Photographs.”

But perhaps the best clause in any band photo release is this one:

“You agree keep their agreement confidential and not to reveal to any third party any personal information concerning this agreement, the Artist or us, that you may become aware of or may be informed of, during the course of your engagement under this agreement.”

That’s right, this is a music combo is so important, their contract so secret, that signatories cannot even acknowledge its existence to third parties: it’s the popster’s version of a super injunction.

The situation is so bad that some photographers have got together and drafted their own more even-handed release to present to bands. TBD suggest that copyright can get complicated because some publishers demand ownership of contributing photographers’ work, setting them on a collision course with the likes of her ladyship. But there’s nothing complicated about that, it’s simply the inevitable consequence of a world where everyone except the photographer thinks they own the photographer’s work: two sides arguing ownership of something that’s not theirs in the first place. It’s called greed.

UPDATE 09/03/2011: this article has been revised and corrected to remove the erroneous claim that TBD claim ownership of contributing freelance photographers’ work. Jay Westcott of TBD has clarified their contract requirements in comment 5 below.

Photo © David Hoffman

The UK War On Photography has been going through a difficult phase. First a photographer and videographer won separate damages against the Metropolitan Police in a case stemming from a 2008 demonstration outside the Greek Embassy in London.

Then the European Court of Human Rights rejected the British government’s appeal against its decision in January that ruled Section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000 in breach of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights. S44 is the law much used by police to stop and search photographers, and the court ruling was celebrated yesterday by a flash mob organised by I’m A Photographer Not A Terrorist outside New Scotland Yard.

And between the two court rulings a group of Metropolitan Police officers earned the force much unenviable publicity when they detained and allegedly assaulted a 15-year-old photographer for taking photographs in a public place. When the photographer asked under what law he was being detained one officer replied: “We don’t have to have a law”.

Photos © Jules Mattsson
Jules Mattsson [above] was photographing a police cadet parade on a public highway in Romford when he was ordered to stop and give his personal details by an adult cadet officer, who incorrectly claimed he needed parental permission to photograph the cadets. The situation deteriorated rapidly with the intervention of a squad of officers under the command of one Inspector Fisher, who provided a textbook example of how not to interact with the media. Quoting a cocktail of imaginary laws and misinterpreting some genuine ones, the Inspector and his colleagues variously accused Mattsson of breaching the Terrorism Act, the Public Order Act, miscellaneous copyright and child protection laws and the previously unheard-of “public privacy law”. Unfortunately for them the teenager, son of a well-known press photographer, proved considerably more knowledgeable on the law than any of the police officers present.

Having lost the legal arguments Inspector Knacker and his squad did what any reasonable gang of schoolyard bullies would do to a lippy 15 year old: they tossed Mattsson down a flight of concrete steps, expressed concern for his safety and detained him. Mattson has a full account and audio slide show of the incident on his blog: skip to 04:30 in the timeline if you find legal jousting dull and just want the rough stuff.

The outcry in the blogosphere and some sections of the UK national media over the police behaviour was predictable; more surprising to many was how other police officers reacted to the performance of their Romford colleagues. “Rubbish”, “embarrassing”, “disgraceful”, “idiots”, “horrendously ill-informed” and “hopeless” were just some of the verdicts on the Police Specials forum. There’s a double irony here, since photographers frequently complain that the part-time Special Constables are often ill-informed with regard to the law and photography; yet in this case many of the Specials seem far better educated than their full-time Romford counterparts.

More than one of the Special Constables called for the sacking of the inspector involved in the Romford incident. That might actually be a very smart move for the Met. Senior police figures have repeatedly stated that there is no law against public photography in the UK; nevertheless a string of incidents shows that these statements are not reflected in the actions of many officers at street level. Photographers therefore conclude that either the senior police assurances are mere PR spin, or that UK police forces are unable to ensure that officers operate within the law regarding photography.

But if the Met were to sack an officer of inspector rank for illegally preventing a photographer from working those criticisms would ring hollow. Further, it would send a strong message to frontline officers that anyone tempted to emulate the Romford mob would have a short policing career. And if the comments on the Police Specials forum were anything to go by, such action would not necessarily be unpopular within the police services. In other words, the Met could transform the Romford fiasco into a PR victory of sorts if they so choose.

None of that is going to happen of course. Mattsson has already taken legal advice, and proceedings will surely follow: on the evidence publicly available the Met will lose, or at best manage to settle out of court. Either way the incident will cost the force at least a few thousand pounds, not to mention the attendant adverse publicity.

The most comprehensive legal advice currently easily available regarding photography, police and the law in the UK is a new article by lawyer Shamik Dutta on the EPUK website.  Meanwhile, one of the Special Constables has a succinct and accurate summary for the police cadet officer responsible for starting the Romford furore: “If you don’t want your picture taken, don’t leave your house.”

Photo © David Hoffman

While Gordon Brown entertained the British electorate with Bigotgate, the Metropolitan Police gained David Cameron some unwelcome publicity with an Election Day raid on a photographer’s home that immediately became known as Wankergate.

On May 6th David Hoffman was working at home in London’s east end when he heard a loud banging on the front door. On opening the door he found himself facing what he describes as “a wall of cops, very pumped up, very angry, very aggressive”.

“Is that your poster?” demanded the police, referring to a poster in Hoffman’s front window of Conservative leader David Cameron with the word “wanker” emblazoned across it. When Hoffman confirmed that it was the police asked him for identification; as he turned to comply the five officers threw the door open, rushed in and handcuffed him.

“They burst into my house, pushed me back and handcuffed me,” claims Hoffman. “They said I had committed an offence under section 5 of the Public Order Act, I was being detained, and I might be arrested.” Section 5 of the POA refers to behaviour likely to cause harassment, alarm or distress.

In a later statement police denied forced entry, presumably on the technicality that the door was already open. But Hoffman, in a video interview with the Guardian, describes the officers involved as “a frightening gang of bullies who burst into my house”.

As a veteran photojournalist Hoffman has worked at many scenes of violent disorder and is used to dealing with police. He says, however, “this really took my breath away: I had no idea what they were going to do.”

After the police left Hoffman was phoned by Inspector Stephen Manger of Tower Hamlets police, and the two discussed at some length the possible options for a rewording of the offending poster. Excerpts give some flavour of The Wankergate Tapes:

David Hoffman: Suppose I were to replace the poster with the word wanker changed so there were 4 asterisks in the middle?
Inspector Manger: You’re denoting what that word is still, aren’t you? I think it’s possible that could be an offence.
David Hoffman: If I were to even cover everything except the W?
Inspector Manger: Well, now I’m not sure. You could construe that word to be anything. But now you’re losing the punch-line for your poster, sir.
David Hoffman: Supposing I put tosser? Where do you stand on tosser? Would I be arrested?
Inspector Manger: I can’t comment…
David Hoffman: I’m about to do it…
Inspector Manger: Mmmm. I couldn’t comment on that sir.
David Hoffman: You didn’t get this in your Inspector’s exam then?
Inspector Manger: No, it’s a tricky one, isn’t it?
David Hoffman: Well, could I say masturbator?
Inspector Manger: No, you couldn’t say that sir.
David Hoffman: Onanist? Self-abuser? It’s difficult to see how that would cause alarm or distress: a biblical word like onanist.
Inspector Manger: You have to consider what a reasonable person would find distressful.
David Hoffman: Is onanist a word you’re familiar with?
Inspector Manger: No, it isn’t.

The photographer, who has twice successfully sued the Metropolitan Police, has since consulted his lawyers, who plan to seek a Judicial Review of the police action.  If the review is successful the whole country would be legally free to display wanker posters and it would be difficult for police to cause alarm and distress when they become over-excited. A cold shower will have to suffice.

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