Photo copyright boost set to open online ‘floodgates’

Copyright law breakers, including those who regard online photos as easy prey, face a potential flood of lawsuits from photographers now equipped with an easier and cheaper legal process.

Copyright symbol by Antony Green

Image designed by Antony Green

Intellectual property disputes can now be resolved using the ‘small claims track' in the Patents County Court (PCC), following a Government announcement of a ‘simpler and easier' system last month.

UPDATE 21 NOVEMBER: READ A STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO MAKING CLAIMS HERE

Photographers can pursue damages for breach of copyright, for up to £5,000, without even appointing a solicitor, unlike before where they may have been put off by a potentially long, and expensive, legal fight.

Furthermore, the damages limit may rise to £10,000 under Ministry of Justice proposals, possibly as early as next year.

Crucially, under the new system, photographers can avoid the prospect of a lengthy court battle and the fear of having to pay the legal fees of the successful party if they lose.

A guide published by the HM Courts & Tribunal Service confirms: ‘The general principle that the unsuccessful party will pay the legal costs of the successful party does not apply on the small claims track.'

Legal fees are capped at £260, though the losing party would be required to make a payment of £90 per day for the loss of earnings of each party, or witness, attending any hearing.

They would also have to pay a small claims fee of up to £120, according to the Royal Courts of Justice, though this can be as little as £50 for a claim of £300-500.

The case would not require a court hearing if a judge deems that the entire case can be dealt with on paper.

Online copyright grabs

People who pluck photos from the internet without permission could face a barrage of lawsuits over coming months, say legal experts.

Photography rights lawyer Charles Swan, from London-based solicitors Swan Turton, expects photographers to be the biggest winners in an internet age where, he says, 80-90% of copyright infringement is online.

Though he knows of only two current cases, Swan believes it is only a matter of time before photographers become aware of this ‘very useful facility', where previously it was ‘not economical' to pursue damages through a lawyer.

‘I think there are going to be far more [cases] soon, once it catches on,' Swan tells Amateur Photographer.

‘It's good news for photographers... It's do-it-yourself justice.

'The whole idea is that you don't need a lawyer to represent you in court.'

It will effectively allow photographers to boost their earnings, by receiving the fees they are due.

‘I think it will have an effect on the [photo] industry in general. People who regularly infringe copyright will get the message.'

Edinburgh law firm Shepherd & Wedderburn says the small claims option may encourage people to take legal action where, before, they may not have done.

‘If an individual can bring a claim for copyright infringement with little risk of costs this may open the floodgates,' says the firm on its website.

Though the PCC deals with cases in England and Wales, the system may have a wider reach.

'Given the UK and EU-wide nature of intellectual property rights, the new procedure will be of relevance to Scottish businesses also,' claims Shepherd & Wedderburn.

Photographers welcome move

The Bureau of Freelance Photographers (BFP) was quick to welcome the move.

The BFP points out that, previously, photographers faced a long wait when pursuing civil actions through their local county court - ‘before eventually coming before a judge who often has little or no experience of copyright issues'.

In its November Market Newsletter, the organisation adds: ‘The new procedure is intended to be user-friendly, with hearings in a judge's chambers rather than a courtroom.

‘Decisions can also be made on written documents alone or even following a telephone hearing...

‘It has been too easy for infringers to calculate that a copyright owner would be reluctant to pursue a case where the cost of enforcement might be greater than the value of the claim.'

Announcing the new system, on 1 October, Business Minister Michael Fallon said: ‘Lower legal costs will make it easier for entrepreneurs to protect their creative ideas where they had previously struggled to access justice in what could often be an expensive process.'

STEP-BY-STEP GUIDE TO MAKING A CLAIM

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