New laws allow exploitation of Instagram pics

  • Getty Images

There is a digital age version of the old adage of there not being any such thing as a free lunch. There isn't any such thing as a free app, social network or programme. Enthusiastic Instagram fans are about to find that out, after the implications of new legislation are felt.

Unless users take care to register the images they upload to the photo-sharing site they will find that their creations are no longer their possession and can be used for commercial purposes. What was convenient and fun has now become potentially intrusive and distressing.

The government's new Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act alters established UK copyright law. On a site such as Instagram, images which are categorised as "orphans", in that they don't have clear identification of the owner, are fair game for commercial exploitation under collective licensing schemes. This applies to millions of photos and illustrations that have been uploaded to Instagram and similar sites.

To avoid this users will have to register their works, an action that goes against the "insta" part of the Instagram site, costing time and possibly money. The sites will continue to prosper while users remain ignorant of the implications but web-savvy users will be far more circumspect about how they use these sites.

The UK regulations could provoke litigation, notably from US-based users who have promised a "firestorm" of protest at the changes. The whole issue is a mess which risks turning the UK into a compliant tool of major US companies who can exploit the material.

Photo rights campaigner Paul Ellis believes the legislation is a major mistake. "The mass of the public will never realise they have been robbed," he said. "But there is value in works and, if anybody can exploit them except the person that creates them, then value is transferred to the exploiter. Ideally you want to empower individuals to trade and keep the proceeds of their trade. The UK has just lost that."

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