President puts his finger on digital issues

WITH THE new digital technology, photographers will only be able to make a living and protect their reputations if their  moral rights as creators are properly enforced - or in some cases in Britain and  Ireland acquired. That was the stark warning of Association of Photographers president Martin Beckett at a London Freelance branch meeting on 11 March.

"Without moral rights, the digital world is going to swamp us," he said. Whether shot on film or digitally, photos are now transmitted digitally. With Photoshop, once publishers have a copy, "the easiest thing they can do is alter it." Photographs can be changed to tell a different story or the photos can be disguised so it is difficult to prove that it was your picture originally.

Moral rights, which apply to the reporting of current events and work published in magazines and newspapers in most countries of Europe but not in Britain and Ireland, provide protection against either of these things happening, at least in theory.

The first moral right is identification, the right to a by-line. The second is the right not to have the work used or altered in a way that is "derogatory" to your reputation.

The first priority in the digital world is for photographers to keep a copy of all their pictures, Beckett says. "You have to retain a copy in whatever media - CDs, flash card - no matter how difficult and what a pain in the neck it is. You have at some point to be able to prove ownership."

Beckett doesn't, however, recommend getting into any more complicated ways of proving that you made it. If anyone challenged you, they would have to "find someone who will lie through their socks" to prove the work was theirs.

Publishers, photo agencies - even some of the more user-friendly ones - are pressurising photographers to waive their moral rights. "Never, ever sign a moral rights waiver," Beckett says.

"We have to protect ourselves against misuse of images, because it is the ruin of your reputation and could lead to terrible abuses." Beckett gives the example of a photograph he took in Johannesburg of a black child pulling the head off a white doll. He has never published the picture because he couldn't guarantee that it would not be copied without his permission and used in a distorted way.

As president among other organisations of Pyramide, the association of photographers' associations, Beckett believes the European Commission must be convinced that moral rights must be retained - and presumably acquired for journalism in Britain and Ireland - and to take action if they are infringed. "We have to find a way of reactivating the debate on moral rights because of the digital issue."

Technical solutions are also important. The idea put forward by London Freelance Branch of a universal symbol to indicate where a picture has been manipulated - adopted as policy by the NUJ but never widely adopted in practice - addressed one of the most important issues, Beckett said.

The technology exists for watermarking images so they can be traced - which is vital for enforcing moral rights.

His final word is that as freelances we need to work to protect our rights in all the organisations and groups we belong too. And that, coming from the self-described "president of everything", is advice to heed.

Last modified: 12 April 2002 - © 2002 contributors
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