Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.

Friday, 24 July 2009

The Lesser Spotted Hairy Law Clanger

Call - MT Hall Portrait

Depending on whether I get Pupillage, and on whether wigs kept on being worn in civil cases, this may be your one and only chance to see me with a full head of hair - even if it is courtesy of Messrs Ede and Ravenscroft!

Congratulations to my fellow BVC students who were Called yesterday - the best of luck to you all.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

Machinima and the Law Podcast

Machinima is the use of real-time 3D rendering software - typically that used by computer games - to make cheap but high-quality CGI movies. I recently had the pleasure of being interviewed by Hugh Hancock, leading light in the Machinima community and indeed the originator of the term, regarding the legal issues arising from it. The interview is available as a podcast from Hugh's blog (one hour, 82 MB MP3) - my thanks to him for the opportunity for a fascinating discussion!

(Despite this blog's name, the interview contains no whistling. It does contain one four-letter word, but I am repeating a quotation given by Geoffrey Robertson QC in his text Media Law, so that's all right then.)

Sunday, 19 July 2009

NPG v Wikipedia

It’s not often that copyright cases get into the news, although there are notable exceptions, such as Lucasfilm v Ainsworth last year, or the Harry Potter Lexicon case in the USA. But the current spat between the National Portrait Gallery and Wikipedia made the front page of the BBC news website a couple of days ago. At its heart (although there is more to it than this) is a simple copyright question: does a faithful copy of a work – in particular, a work that is now out of copyright – enjoy copyright protection in its own right?

The NPG is complaining that a Wikipedia user, Mr Coetzee, copied high-resolution images of some 3,300 paintings from its website and posted them on Wikipedia. In a letter from its solicitors it asserts that these images are all recent original photographs taken by the NPG and that the NPG therefore holds their copyright, and that Mr Coetzee has infringed this. Mr Coetzee’s position is that the paintings are out of copyright, and since the images he downloaded are quite literally copies rather than original or even transformed or derived works then there cannot be any copyright for him to have infringed.

This is an intriguing issue and for the last few days I have been discussing it with a number of my fellow volunteers for the Open Rights Group. This has been a very interesting experience, especially as several of them are considerably more qualified and experienced in IP law than I am, and I’m grateful for their agreement that I could summarise our discussion in this post. (I should add that ORG is not taking any active role in this dispute, although its legally-qualified volunteers are observing it with keen interest. Furthermore, any legal errors or misconceptions are entirely my own.)

Does the NPG have a case? It is relying on s.1 and s.4 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, which provides that original artistic works, including photographs, enjoy copyright protection. Of course, this leads to the question of what ‘original’ means. Every copyright course I have undertaken has stressed that in English law the originality bar is set very low indeed; in effect, if you create an artistic work such as a photograph, you automatically get copyright in it. In the case of a painting, this is undoubtedly true. It’s even true for a simple drawing; s.4 provides that copyright arises irrespective of artistic quality. It is true for a carefully composed photograph. But if artistic quality is not required, what about skill and effort? The ‘sweat of the brow’ argument, often deployed in considering literary copyright, holds that a certain minimum level of skill and effort must be expended for copyright to arise. What is not clear, particularly in respect of a photograph, is whether that skill and effort applies to all aspects of a work’s creation, or just its originality. This is particularly relevant in the NPG’s claim, as whilst it seems clear that a lot of skill and effort when into photographing its paintings, it was aimed at ensuring that the photographs were as faithful a copy of the paintings as possible – in other words, that no originality was introduced at all.

As early as 1869 it was held in Grave’s Case 4 LRQB 715 that a photograph of an engraving enjoyed copyright under the then-current legislation. However, this view has not invariably been followed; consider, for instance, the comments of Lord Oliver in Interlego v Tyco Industries [1989] AC 217:

“It takes great skill, judgment and labour to produce a good copy by painting or to produce an enlarged photograph from a positive print, but no one would reasonably contend that the copy painting or enlargement was an "original" artistic work in which the copier is entitled to claim copyright. Skill, labour or judgment merely in the process of copying cannot confer originality.”

Now, this was a decision of the Privy Council, and furthermore was strictly obiter. However, it was applied in The Reject Shop Plc v Robert Manners [1995] FSR 870, which was an appeal by way of case stated from a private criminal prosecution under s.107 CDPA 1988. In considering whether copyright subsisted in an enlarged photocopy Leggat LJ held that it did not:

“The process was wholly mechanical and there is nothing to suggest that enlargement was for any purpose of that kind. There was, in short, no evidence before the magistrate of the exercise in the production of what he called the “distorted photocopies” of any relevant skill and labour whatever. It follows that the final images were not original works and so no copyright could subsist in them.”

This is what I term the ‘photocopy argument’ – that if the method of reproduction amounts in nature if not exact technique to photocopying the original artwork, then no new copyright can arise. If the NPG possessed a very large flat-bed scanner and scanned its painting, then it would be hard to argue that the resulting digital image enjoyed independent copyright. If the painting was instead photographed and the image carefully processed to even out any lighting inconsistencies and eliminate distortion, then it would in principle be identical to a scanned image. Is it significant that extra skill and effort went into its creation if the only consequence of that skill and effort was to remove any element that distinguished it from a pure mechanical copy?

The counter-argument, which was originally presented by Kevin Garnett QC in an article in the European Intellectual Property Review (EIPR 22(5) 229-237) considers a photograph of a scene in which no copyright can subsist, such as a landscape. If the photographer exercises no skill or judgement and has limited capacity even to pick a particular viewpoint, then copyright still arises. This image, taken by me from the London Eye, has not been corrected or cropped, and I did not have the option of where to take it from or even, given that I was on a timed ticket, when I took it. Hundreds of similar pictures must be taken daily. But nonetheless, my picture undoubtedly enjoys copyright. So why shouldn’t another picture of a scene without its own copyright, such as an out-of-copyright painting, not also enjoy copyright, especially if the photographer in that instance employed much more skill and effort than I did.

I think it’s fair to sum up our discussion as concluding that the matter is open. There is no recent binding authority either way, although cases such as Interlego and Reject Shop point against copyright arising. Nonetheless, arguments can be made both for and against; my own feeling is that a straightforward application of the law would support the NPG, but that a reasoned argument could well be made against it.

A complicating factor is that Mr Coetzee is not in the UK; he is, as I understand it, in the USA. A US court has ruled on this very issue, in Bridgeman Art Library v Corel Corp. There, it actually sought to apply UK law and interpreted it such that a faithful photographic copy does not enjoy copyright, a position consistent with the US approach to this issue. But if the NPG does go on to sue Mr Coetzee, it would do so in an English court, which might be influenced by Bridgeman but would be under no obligation to follow it.

The NPG makes other claims, including breach of contract, bypassing of technical protection measures and database right infringement. The first would probably run into problems of consideration (or rather lack of it), whilst the second does not seem tenable – the software used by the NPG to display hi-resolution images by increasing the resolution as you zoom in is hardly in the same league as encryption or digital watermarking. The database rights claim is less clear-cut, though.

The usual case referred to in interpreting the sui generis database right is British Horseracing Board v William Hill [2005] RPC 35. The point generally taken from this case is that significant investment in creating the database is necessary for the database right to arise. On that basis, I assumed that irrespective of the copyright point, the amount of effort put into acquiring the images of the paintings for the NPG’s database would give rise to a database right (which would almost certainly have been infringed by abstracting 3,300 entries from it.) However, a friend who manages a large commercial database reminded me when I was discussing this case that the ECJ decision that BHB is based upon also emphasised that this investment must be in the creation of the database itself. As confirmed by the Court of Appeal, the right arises where the database creator has invested effort in creation of a database of existing available data, rather than in creating or approving the data. Indeed, if the data is such that it is only available to the database creator, then the database right does not arise (see Kon and Heide, E.I.P.R. 2006, 28(1), 60-66).

And this could be a fatal hole in the NPG’s database claim. The whole basis of the NPG’s copyright argument is that it does not permit unauthorised copying of its paintings; the only body with legitimate access to the data that has gone into the NPG’s image database is the NPG itself. Nobody else is in a position to lawfully create such a database, no matter how much effort they put into doing so. On this argument, the NPG’s database does not attract database right protection.

It’s not at all clear at this stage what will happen. Mr Coetzee may well not acknowledge the claim in the hope that the NPG, even if it obtains judgment in default, may well not seek to enforce it in the US courts. But if it does come to court in England, then both the copyright and database right claims may well be a lot more open to argument than one might originally think.

Update: At TechnoLlama, Andres Guadamuz has looked in much more detail at the contract claim. I agree with him that formation is probably not in issue, but as I've noted in my comment to his post I think there are very serious problems with consideration (i.e. the NPG has received no payment or benefit from Mr Coetzee.)

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

More on Cameras

Following up from yesterday's post, I've had some interesting and thought-provoking comments (some here, some on a personal blog where I posted a link to yesterday's entry). I thought I'd address some of the points raised.


This whole issue is over whether a camera would be considered to be a computer under s.3 Computer Misuse Act 1990. This is a matter of statutory interpretation, so what do the normal principles by which courts do this tell us?

The first rule of statutory interpretation is the 'Literal Rule' - words are to be taken as meaning what they say. On the one hand, this might go against taking a camera to be a computer, because on the face of it a camera is one thing and a computer is another. As I said yesterday though, whilst this might have been clear-cut when the CMA was first drafted, it is a lot less so now, and I still think a good case could be made that a literal interpretation would be by no means unambiguous.

The second rule is the 'Golden Rule' - words should not be interpreted so as to lead to an absurd result. I would submit that not to define a digital camera as a computer would lead to the absurdity that it would be permissible to delete photographs from a memory card whilst it was inside the camera, but illegal if it was removed and plugged into a PDA. Why should it be legal to do this when the card is in one gadget held by the photographer but not when it is in another?

Finally, there is the 'Mischief Rule' - where doubt remains, look at the undesirable behaviour, or 'mischief', that the law is trying to prevent. The intent of s.3 is clear: it was enacted to close a loophole in English law by which it was not an offence to damage, destroy or block access to data in circumstances where the same act in relation to a physical embodiment of that data (e.g. a tape, floppy disk or hard drive) would have constituted criminal damage or theft. Now, I think it likely that if someone insisted on pulling the film out of a camera and exposing it to the light, then this would be criminal damage, because the film would have been rendered useless and the pictures on it lost. So there is no reason why equivalent conduct with a digital camera should not be treated in the same way - the underlying mischief is the same.

Intellectual Property

Somebody asked if an action might law in respect of the IP in pictures deleted on a camera. My understanding of this, as reinforced by a quick look at Copinger and Skone James, is that no criminal or indeed civil action lies for the destruction of copyright material - only for its infringement. C&SJ goes as far as to say that outright destruction (as distinct from mutilation) does not even infringe the moral rights of the photographer, because there is no remaining mutilated image to be seen. If you could prove that an image would have had real, tangible value - for instance if you got a very newsworthy shot but a police officer forced you to delete it - then I can see that you might be able to sue for trespass and claim damages. But I don't think that IP can be of much assistance.

Other Offences

As some other readers have noted, if a security guard - who by my understanding has no rights to confiscate an item from somebody - takes or tries to take a camera, he or she stands a good chance of being liable for assault, robbery or possibly blackmail. I'd welcome comments on this.

Monday, 6 July 2009

What is a Computer?

(A word of warning: more so than normal, this blog entry is my opinion, and does NOT constitute nor should be relied upon as legal advice.)

Readers might be forgiven for thinking that the answer to the question posed by the title of this entry is, quite literally, staring me in the face. Yes, I’m typing this blog on what it quite unquestionably a computer. But what else counts as a computer? A PDA? Yes, no question of it. A smartphone? Almost indisputably, especially given that my iPhone is far more powerful than many PDAs, or indeed many portable computers of only a few years ago. But what about a digital camera?

My question isn’t purely academic. As a keen photographer I’ve followed with both interest and concern the growing number of accounts of photographers being stopped and searched under anti-terror legislation, or harassed by security guards, again often on the pretext of security. A common feature of such incidents is the demand that the photographer delete images on his or her camera. And this explains my question, because I think there is a good case to be made that to do so is illegal under the Computer Misuse Act 1990.

It turns out I have company in high places in this regard. Lord Carlisle, in his 2008 annual report on the operation of the Terrorism Act 2000, notes with concern reports of the use of recent anti-terror legislation against photographers (see paras 195 to 197) and specifically comments that police officers who use force against photographers to, for instance, make them delete photographs, risk liability for both disciplinary and criminal proceedings. What I am suggesting is that irrespective of other liability under such legislation as the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984, the CMA may well provide specific protection to photographers.

(As an aside, there is a simple and practical approach to dealing with such incidents: comply with the demand, and then use readily-available data recovery utilities to recover the deleted files later, so long as no new pictures have been recorded on the memory card in question. But that doesn’t address what I consider to be the unjust nature of the demand in the first place.)

The relevant part of CMA 1990 is section 3, as recently amended by the Police and Justice Act 2006. S.3 provides that it is an offence for a person to, knowing that the act is unauthorised (s.3(1)(b)), prevent or hinder access to any program or data held on a computer (s.3(2)(b)). If a digital camera counts as a computer for the purposes of CMA 1990, then deleting a photograph from it would constitute preventing or hindering access to data held on it. (Even if the image was recoverable, it would still count as ‘hindering’.) The relevant questions are therefore whether a digital camera does count as a computer and whether a demand by a police officer or security guard to delete photographs is deemed to be unauthorised.

The second question is the easier one to answer. S.17(5) CMA 1990 says that access is unauthorised if it is by someone who would not be entitled to control access to that data, and who does not have the permission of someone who does. The only person entitled to control access to a computer owned by me and in my possession is me; the same applies to any device that counts as a computer for the purposes of CMA 1990.

Now, s.10 CMA 1990 does provide certain exemptions for law enforcement, and in particular it says that access by a constable or other investigating officer is not unauthorised even if done without consent. However, it very also very clearly states that this only applies to the offence created by s.1(1) CMA 1990, that of gaining unauthorised access to computer material. It does not apply to s.3. So, in the context of a camera, an officer may look at pictures stored on it in the course of a lawful search because s.10 makes such access lawful. But s.10 does not make it lawful to infringe s.3 by deleting them.

All this of course presupposes that a digital camera is a computer, at least as far as CMA 1990 is concerned. Unfortunately, whilst the Act includes a lot of other definitions, it is silent as to what a computer is; whoever drafted the act evidently thought it obvious. It probably was obvious in 1990, when even the advent of PCs had not changed the understanding that a computer was a box that you typed data into and which gave output in text or graphics on a screen or via a printer. But, as I noted earlier, today we see a much wider range of devices as being computers. As I said, my iPhone is almost certainly one by any reasonable definition. Now, it incorporates a camera (quite a good one, as I have one of the new 3GS models) and I am confident that there would be a very strong case that if anyone tried to make me delete pictures on my iPhone or attempted to do so themselves then they would be committing an offence under s.3 CMA 1990.

But the iPhone is a general-purpose device, not one dedicated to photography. (Yes, I know it’s strictly a phone. But it is really a small, powerful PDA with a phone built in, as is clear from the way Apple will sell you an iPod Touch that is almost identical but sans phone.) My Canon digital SLR is made for the sole purpose of taking photographs; it is definitely more of a camera than my iPhone, but is it also less of a computer?

How have other countries sought to define computers? Singapore’s Computer Misuse Act is closely modelled on the UK Act, but with additional explanatory material that defines a computer as

an electronic, magnetic, optical, electrochemical, or other data processing device, or a group of such interconnected or related devices, performing logical, arithmetic, or storage functions, and includes any data storage facility or communications facility directly related to or operating in conjunction with such devices, but does not include an automated typewriter or typesetter, a portable hand held calculator or other similar device which is non-programmable or which does not contain any data storage facility.”

Would this include a digital camera? It mentions both electronic and optical elements, together with data storage – all of which a digital camera possesses. The exclusions seem to me to relate to devices that cannot store data or run software. Digital cameras clearly do the former, and indeed can run software too, as is seen from the patches posted by manufacturers.

If we accept that the Singaporean definition of a computer is a reasonable one (and speaking as someone who’s been studying computers one way or another since the mid-1980s, it seems eminently sensible to me) then it is hard to avoid concluding that English law should recognise a digital camera to be a computer for the purposes of the CMA 1990. If so, then s.3 makes it an offence to delete, or seek to force someone to delete, photographs from such a camera without lawful authority, and as the s.10 exception does not apply to s.3, mere investigation does not provide such authority.

Does this mean that I think that anyone told to delete photographs should refuse to do so and cite s.3 CMA? As I said earlier, this post is not legal advice and must not be taken as such. What people do under such circumstances must be up to them; however, I feel that should a complaint about forced deletion of photographs be pursued, then the s.3 CMA aspect is at least deserving of consideration.