Copyright? Wrong!

By Brand Heeler

A cautionary tale about copyright. There’s a clue in the name: it’s all about copying!

About 10 years ago, Sarah Scurr, a British tourist in Chile took a photo of an iceberg and entered it in an online photography competition organised by the UK’s Daily Telegraph newpaper. So far, so unremarkable.

But then, last month, a Chilean reporter publicly denounced Ms Scurr as a plagiarist, posting her own ‘original’ photo as proof that the Telegraph had been duped. It’s not clear how Ms Scurr was supposed to have copied this other photograph and, anyway, a few minutes playing ‘spot the difference’ reveals some clear if subtle distinctions (the ripple pattern of the waves, parallax changes against background features etc). The pictures are similar, but not the same.

This is all even less remarkable when it turns out that both women were passengers on the same boat trip back in 2006. Given how many cameras there are in the world (circa 2.5 billion in mobile phones alone), this kind of coincidence is not so much ‘incredible’ as ‘inevitable’. Each time one of those cameras is used, it potentially generates a new copyright work which may be all-but-identical to any number of other copyright works. But copyright is all about copying. Genuinely independent creation of another work, however, similar, is not infringement.

Nevertheless, plenty of people have taken the opportunity to jump in self-righteously with insults and slurs against Ms Scurr. What none of these viral vigilantes appears to question is why it should seem so unlikely that 2 people on the same organised tour of an icefield would think to photograph the same picturesque iceberg, past which they were both sailing, on the same ship, at the same time. This is starting to sound like a Simpsons sketch…

Copyright is a valuable form of intellectual property (to photographers and many other professions besides) and is currently facing quite enough threats to its existence without online lynch mobs and daft journalism inventing more. The Telegraph today is cock-a-hoop over this ‘incredible’ and ‘bizarre’ coincidence – we reckon the only thing bizarre about it is that so many people do indeed think it’s incredible.

This article contains our thoughts and opinions on an issue of general interest and is written from the perspective of Australian and/or English law. It is not legal advice and is not provided in the context of a solicitor-client relationship. It may not even be relevant to your jurisdiction. No duty of care is assumed or accepted. Please carry out appropriate research and consult with a suitably qualified legal expert before taking any action or making any decisions.

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