Imagine a large company using a photograph of you, without your knowledge, to sell their products. It's your face, your expression, choice in hairstyle, clothes and identity working hard to put money into some stranger's pocket without any compensation to you. After the steam clears from your head, you would probably call your lawyer.
Now imagine your lawyer saying you had no case because the company is protected by a law that entitles them to use your likeness since... well... they just couldn't find you to ask your approval.
This scenario is what all photographers, writers, musicians, illustrators and filmmakers grapple with every day, especially with the proliferation of digital technology and along with it, the ease of copying, distributing and profiting from other people's work. And it's about to get a whole lot worse if certain interest groups have their way with the Senate.
At this very moment, lobbyists representing the publishing industry and other sectors are working to persuade our Congress to adopt S.2913, the Shawn Bentley Orphan Works Act of 2008. If this law passes in its current form, it will make it fairly easy for all companies to steal someone's creative work, for profit.
If you ask the proponents of this bill, they will argue that large amounts of historic images go unpublished because their photographers are unknown and probably deceased (hence the term "Orphan Works"). This is a legitimate concern since schools, public libraries, museums and other institutions cannot afford to be sued for copyright infringement by a surprise claimant. These images can be useful for any application for "the public good" where there is little or no commercial profit. And, if these were the only applications for Orphan Works, most photographers (including me) would wholeheartedly support this bill. Too bad the bill suspiciously omits any protections from large, for-profit companies who will certainly use it to their advantage.
If you think this is just a problem for photographers, think again. The same problem could eventually extend to architects, interior designers and many other industries reliant on innovation and protection for their original ideas.
If you think this is just a problem for professionals, think again. There are a lot of very talented amateur photographers showing their high-res images on photo sharing sites like Flickr. If I was a publisher under Orphan Works protection, this is the first place I would go to right-click a free stock image library for my advertising campaigns.
For those who are not in creative industries, just simply imagine doing your current job for free. Or, maybe just 2 weeks per month free. Or every Tuesday, for free. Would you accept any of those scenarios?
If you are a creator who opposes the Orphan Works bill and wants to join the cause, you can find your senators by searching for them here and write them using this template from photographers, rewording it for your particular industry.
If you're actually a supporter of this bill, feel free to leave any comments below.