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Wednesday, May 14, 2008

My take on The Orphan Works Act of 2008

If you're a pro photographer and haven't been hiding in a cave, you've probably heard about the Orphan Works Act (OWA). Also known as H.R.5889 (the House version of the bill), and S.2913 (the Senate version). Both versions are currently in draft stages, and are similar enough to discuss as a single document.

Even if you do live in a cave, you surely must have heard the screams from protesters about the bill echo throughout your cavernous walls. In fact, a google search yields more web pages advocating protests against the bill than actual content on the bill itself. These perspectives run the gamut from utter hysteria to that of a kinder, gentler kind of hysteria.

An example of the total hysteria -- which is always coupled with loads of misinformation -- is Mark Simon's blog posting, which you can read here. This is the piece that's been passed around to photographers and other artists everywhere, by email, internet forums, faxes, and word-of-mouth. It and other emails like it, are responsible for the dispensing of more untruths and rumors that have only lead to confuse people. Yet, as our culture dictates, if you got it in email, it must be true. (Hint to dumb people: whenever you read something that is peppered with lots of exclamation points, you are reading propaganda, and are also being lied to.)

A far more sound, balanced, and informed retort to Simon's piece can be found on Meredith Patterson's blog. Unfortunately, Meredith's post doesn't really make its rounds in photo circles.

In short, just about every objection I've read about the OWA has been rife with unsubstantiated statements about how photographers will lose their copyright protections, or that people will be able to use their images for free. Yet, at no time does anyone cite text from the bill that even hints at this possibility.

And though Meredeth does a good job at dispensing with the most common misconceptions about the OWA, it doesn't talk about the stuff that really matters to artists. So that's what I'd like to do.

To begin, I'd like to do what no one else that argues about this bill typically does: actually provide a link to the bill itself so that those playing the home game can read along. I'll be citing text from it to illustrate the points that matter, so this reference point might help:


The bill, which is surprisingly short and easy enough to read (if you don't mind long lists of comma-separated items), is broken down into several sections. Only one of which has real substance to the "uses and limitations" that is the source of everyone's consternation. I'll get to that very soon. But first the summary: the OWA intends to provide certain protections for those who use copyrighted works in certain ways, so long as the original author of the work cannot be found. Hence, the work is an "orphan." If you need more background than that, then you should do some independent research. A fantastic summary of what the problem is that is intended to be solved can be found here: http://www.copyright.gov/orphan/

Of all the objections you can find on the internet, if you exclude the unfounded and ridiculous (which is virtually everything), what's really left to discuss is the notion that publishers can potentially use a copyrighted work (like a photograph) "for free", so long as they claim that they couldn't find who the copyright holder is. This has created the fear that major publishers and broadcast television stations will crawl the internet for photos, and just use them carte blanche, and never paying license fees.

This is the part of the code alludes to this very point:

Section 2(c)(1)(B)
An order requiring the infringer to pay ... compensation for the use of the infringed work may not be made ... if the infringer is a nonprofit educational institution, library, or archives, or a public broadcasting entity...

In short, the protesters are worried that non-profits, libraries and TV stations have free reign to steal photos at will. Then the fear mongers take it one step further: that a user of the photo that isn't one of those above entities, may try to use legal maneuvering or other forms of masquerade as one, so as to ultimately steal images for commercial use (a use which normally commands an even higher license fee that the photographer will have missed out on).

Fortunately, it's not so simple. And this is why it's important to read the text of the bill. As mentioned above, the meat of the bill that applies here is Section 2, which has three headings: (a): Definitions, (b): Conditions for Eligibility, and (c), Limitations on Remedies. The quoted excerpt above is from section (c), where it lists the entities that do not have to pay compensation if they use a work that does have a copyright holder who comes forward. But, the mistake people are making is assuming these entities are automatically exempt. No, they're not. First, they must become eligible for exemption by satisfying part (b), which states that the user must have done a "Qualifying Search" to discover who the copyright holder is. And this is a rather arduous process, as you can read for yourself:

(i) IN GENERAL- For purposes of paragraph (1)(A)(i)(I), a search is qualifying if the infringer undertakes a diligent effort to locate the owner of the infringed copyright.

(ii) DETERMINATION OF DILIGENT EFFORT- In determining whether a search is diligent under this subparagraph, a court shall consider whether--

(I) the actions taken in performing that search are reasonable and appropriate under the facts relevant to that search, including whether the infringer took actions based on facts uncovered by the search itself;

(II) the infringer employed the applicable best practices maintained by the Register of Copyrights under subparagraph (B); and

(III) the infringer performed the search before using the work and at a time that was reasonably proximate to the commencement of the infringement.

(iii) LACK OF IDENTIFYING INFORMATION- The fact that a particular copy or phonorecord lacks identifying information pertaining to the owner of the infringed copyright is not sufficient to meet the conditions under paragraph (1)(A)(i)(I).

In other words, before anyone is eligible for limitations on damages, they must have done a search that is compliant with the methodologies listed above, and documented in such a way so as to prove to a court that the user has complied with the Act. This makes the task of "frivolously stealing an image and hiding behind the OWA" less likely of a problem. One would have to carefully weigh the cost of properly documenting a legally defensible "diligent search" against the cost of just licensing the photo in the first place. (Actually, there's more to it than this, and I'll come back to it soon.)

Of course, this also assumes that the photographer is known. And that might not be the case. Hence, the second concern is that because photos are passed around the internet like wind blowing sand in the desert, it's nearly impossible to really know where any given picture might have originated. Even honest publishers don't know whom to go to. So, could they also get away with using the photo for free? Perhaps, but they also have to assume risk: that someone would still come forward and file an infringement claim. Few want to take this risk, as I'll come back to later.

But, it's the requirement to do a "diligent search" that brings me to what I believe to be the best part of the OWA:
This section states, "The Register of Copyrights shall undertake a certification process for the establishment of an electronic database to facilitate the search for pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works that are subject to copyright protection." Furthermore, the Copyright Office "shall make available to the public through the Internet a list of all electronic databases that are certified."

Read that closely: a certification process for the establishment of a database. This means that it isn't just the copyright office that has a database, but that many companies could build such a solution and apply for certification. Each would then offer services to the general public for finding copyright holders. For example, a service may provide the user with a form to upload a photo to the site, much like the way you upload photos to a photo-sharing site, and the user gets back a report detailing who the registered copyright owner of that photo is.

Sound like magic? Sound too good to be true? Sound familiar? I publicly proposed such an idea in a blog I wrote on January 21, 2008, in this blog entry, after I had privately proposed it to the Copyright Office the prior year. I make no claims that it was my idea that made its way into the bill. I am only saying that, because of its similarity to my proposal, I am familiar with the ideas and intents that it provides, and feel it does everyone a great deal of good.

My intent at the time had nothing to do with OWA or anything like it, but rather, to provide an infrastructure to verify who owns a photo for a variety of reasons. At the time, the topic du jour was the Creative Commons dilemma. Here, any anonymous person could declare any image to be "free" by placing it under a Creative Commons License, but they can do so with no registration, verification or authentication of any kind. I argued that this aspect of the CC had created a breeding ground (not to mention incentive) on both sides (photographers and licensees alike) to game the system for their own profit. To avoid this problem, Licensees need a way of verifying that a photo hasn't already been copyrighted (at least). My idea of the certification process happened to address that problem, but it can also easily address the OWA as well. (As you can see, it's part of it.).

One of the things I pointed out in my proposal, and which applies directly to why it's so great to see it in the OWA, is that the entire idea can be turned on like a light switch (well, in government time, that is). This could be done nearly the same time the OWA were to be enacted because because both the database, and the image matching/search technology already exist. Several firms, like picscout and IdeeInc, use image recognition algorithms right now: they start with a sample image, determine it's "fingerprint" (that's the algorithm), and then find where else on the internet where the photo exists. They do this by comparing this fingerprint against all the other fingerprints they've collected from the web pages their robots have been crawling for years. If the crawl is far and deep enough into the web, more matches are found. The clients of these companies are large stock agencies who pay to find infringers of their works, and then demand payments or damages.

If the OWA passes, each of these companies would just process the copyright "library" of images (just like it did when it crawled the web), fingerprint them, and then do instant comparison analysis against an input image by any given user. The only thing keeping that from happening today is access to the copyright office's database of images.

Other players in this could be Google, Yahoo and other search engines, because they already do all this as well. In fact, faster and more thoroughly, for obvious reasons. They don't make it available to the public due to certain business and legal concerns that are beyond the scope of this article, but the OWA would alleviate these legal concerns. The doors would open up to a truly public system nearly the same day the certification process would become enabled.

Of course, the one thing this relies on is photographers actually registering their works with the Copyright Office. Not doing so has always been dim-witted, but after the OWA is enacted, there's all the incentive to do so. And now that you can register online, the process is even easier than that one-page form you used to have to fill out.

What's the net effect of all this on the photo licensing industry? As I wrote in my January 2008 blog, Infringements themselves could become a thing of the past. While people could still "steal" images and publish them without the photographer's consent, they'd be taking a huge risk in doing so because if the photographer caught them (a highly likely event, given that media of all sorts is being digitized and indexed, therefore "findable"), the case in court is pretty cut and dried: "Your honor, all one needs to do is simply input the photo in the copyright office database and my name comes right up." How could a judge not find the infringer guilty? Better still, it could determine that the search is so easy, that not doing so would imply a willful infringement. By statute, "willful infringements" increase the ceiling of the damages the judge may award from $30,000 per infringement to $150,000. With that kind of risk and a sure-fire losing case in court, the number of infringements would drop considerably.

Another unexpected benefit of the copyright database: it might even generate sales. If an honest company finds your photo on a website somewhere, or it's been passed around in email, and they want to use it, just use the database to find you and license the image legitimately. Today, they'd never know it was you.

Here's another benefit: it would be harder for someone to claim someone else's images as their own--a phenomenon that's already happened everywhere from major stock photo agencies to social-networking sites like Flickr. So long as the photo's been registered with the copyright office, a simple search will usually yield the correct owner. Though this is obviously not bullet-proof, it's far superior than what's available today.

True, there will always be "orphaned works" out there, much of it not on the internet. But the provisions of the OWA's "diligent search" requirements are onerous enough, that one doesn't want to mess with offline content frivolously as well. After all, they may not be online, but they may still have been registered with the copyright office, and if the promise of the online database holds true, these offline items may end up being found as well.

Once again, this works best when works have been registered. But, what about those that haven't been? Does the OWA have sufficient teeth to address everyday people and their works, whether images or songs, or what-have-you? If the work is not registered, it won't turn up in the database search, thereby making it much hard to legitimately find the copyright holder. There are those who say that this alone makes stealing easy for publishers: because it's easy to claim that there are tens of billions of photos online, and finding the owner is like finding a needle in a haystack. But the court also knows that the OWA isn't there to protect people from litigation just because they didn't find that needle. The court is going to consider whether the publisher was looking in a haystack where every straw probably has a known, current, copyright holder in an environment that's inherently crowded with such. Judges look for "intent" by the parties, and it isn't going to be hard to see what's going on when such cases come before them.

Oh, and let's remember the pragmatic reality of how these things go in real life. If a company were to be dumb enough to try to hide behind the OWA, and they get sued by a copyright holder for infringement, the company's lawyer is going to do what every lawyer does: avoid the litigation by trying to reach a settlement. Though it's sad when innocent companies get sued on baseless claims, they still know it's always better to settle than to go to court. And those are the innocent companies. I'll bet you Bill Gates' next paycheck that a guilty party is even more eager to settle than risk going to court and losing. That would not only make them ineligible for safe harbor (even if they are a nonprofit, library or PBS station), but that the existing statutory damages would apply. This settlement is virtually assured to be a much higher price than what they would have paid had they licensed it legitimately. (A good lawyer will assure that!)

In the end, photographers are really not losing anything at all with the OWA, and I see no real concern for risk in any of the areas that has been getting all the hoopla. Granted, it's not a perfect bill, and I don't doubt there is probably language that needs cleaning up. Nor am I disputing the (currently unknown) possibility that the OWA might exacerbate infringements. But that doesn't mean they will necessarily be "successful" infringements. And, even if there is an increase, it would be a short-term anomaly, quick to subside once people become aware that the OWA doesn't protect them as they thought they would.

In my mind, the true golden nugget is Section 3 of the bill, where the public can access databases of registered works. This will have the greatest effect on providing disincentive for infringers of all types, even those that have nothing to do with the OWA.

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