The Hand-Old-Media-the-Digital-Economy Bill

It looks as if the Digital Economy Bill is a fait accompli at this stage, but in the hope that posting this might encourage just one more person to write to their MP, here’s what I wrote to mine a couple of weeks ago. It’s more tempered than I actually feel about the bill, which should never have been drafted in the first place, but I didn’t want to turn it into a rant. He replied sympathetically, but one letter won’t make much of a difference; the effect is cumulative, though, so if you’re a UK voter and care at all about your digital life, please add your voice.

Dear [my MP],

I am writing to express my deep concern about the Digital Economy Bill, which threatens several aspects of 21st-century British life and culture that I hold dear. Not least are its implications for professional photographers, who now face constraints on street photography unheard of since photography’s invention, which will inevitably lead to fallout for amateur photographers such as myself. We amateurs, meanwhile, face the prospect of our work being appropriated by media organizations under the bill’s sweeping orphan works provisions, which could allow them to use photographs found online without compensation after performing only cursory searches for attribution. Even if I take steps to attach my name to my work when posting it online, if a third party reproduces it stripped of those details any media organization could claim it as an orphan work and profit from it without my consent. This makes a mockery of copyright protection for the general public.

This is particularly galling given the provisions of the bill to create sweeping powers to cut off everyday Internet users for alleged copyright infringement without due process. The message seems to be that if we infringe publishers’ copyright, we lose our Internet connection, but if they infringe ours, we lose our moral rights.

Every new detail I learn about the Digital Economy Bill and its potential implications fills me with increasing alarm, not least its being pushed through with little debate during the last months of the current parliament. As a photographer and writer who has spent over ten years creating work for the Web, I am dismayed to think that I might be forced to withdraw from a medium I love, simply because I live in Britain. The bill appears to wind back the clock, entirely artificially, to a time when only the biggest organizations could afford to publish or broadcast anything, and served as gatekeepers for public debate and entertainment.

The bill’s threats to our creative lives also have implications for my work as an academic looking at the use of the Internet and the Web in education. A Web turned into just another broadcast medium has drastically diminished value for any creative, interactive endeavour, which certainly includes education. A Web that Britons feel is too risky to use for fear of the proverbial knock on the door is a Web that we cede to the rest of the world, at a time when we need to be at the forefront of exploring and pushing the boundaries of what it can do.

The Web has had an enormously positive impact on the creative life of this country, when we view that creativity in its entirety and not just through the lens of big media. To undermine that at this stage would be shortsighted and tremendously counterproductive. I urge you to challenge the haste with which this bill is being ushered into law.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Rory Ewins

5 March 2010 · UK Culture