Just as the doomed Agence France Presse case against Haitian photographer Daniel Morel suffers yet another blow, the action on Twitter related photo heists has moved elsewhere.

Last week showbiz news agency WENN announced a deal with Plixi to charge publishers who use images uploaded via the social media firm. The reason for the arrangement is simple. Plixi provides a vital public service by allowing the likes of Courtney Love to share her ladyparts with the world; and WENN is well positioned to make publishers pay the going rate for images of 47 year old divorcees in the bathroom, rather than swipe them for free as they have been doing. Proceeds from the sales of this important documentary imagery will apparently be split between WENN and Plixi: the photographers and copyright owners will – you guessed – get nothing.

Announcing the deal, WENN Chief Executive Lloyd Beiny presented himself as an old-fashioned lawman, claiming the arrangement will end the “digital Wild West” that has allowed publishers to “liberally help themselves to photos posted on Plixi and reproduce them with scant concern for the ownership of copyright”. Flanked by a posse of deputies riding shotgun Marshall Beiny continued:

“Everyone has turned a blind eye to the use of these pictures up until now, but sooner or later the people who own them are going to say you can’t just steal our pictures and republish them without paying for them.”

Beiny’s major think-fail is obvious, but just to spell it out: neither WENN nor Plixi are “the people who own” the pictures. Before the deal Courtney et al could simply drop their kaks, upload the images and await the free publicity. Nothing has changed in that process except that now WENN & Plixi will step in to demand a fee from anyone providing that publicity.

So, far from being the lawman riding into town to impose order, Beiny’s announcement is closer to other fine old Western traditions such as cattle rustling and land-grabs.

While it’s celeb material that has fuelled the deal, the new Plixi terms of use of course apply to anyone using the service.  So anyone uploading images to Plixi is now effectively handing over the keys to the ranch, for free: perhaps that’s why Plixi appears to have forgotten to mention the WENN deal anywhere on their site. It is after all the kind of important change one might expect to read about on their news blog:

“Plixi does not claim ownership of content you submit or make available for inclusion on the service. However, with respect to content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of the service, you grant Plixi the following worldwide, royalty-free and non-exclusive license(s), as applicable:

“With respect to content you submit or make available for inclusion on publicly accessible areas of Plixi, the license (with the right to sublicense) to use, distribute, reproduce, modify, adapt, publicly perform and publicly display such content, whether on the service, or through other media.

“This license exists only for as long as you elect to continue to include such content on the service and will terminate at the time you remove or Plixi removes such content from the service; provided, however, that if Plixi distributes or authorizes distribution of any content prior to your removal thereof from the service, Plixi’s (and it’s sublicenses’) rights with respect to such content shall be in perpetuity.”

The funniest thing about this scheme is that of course it won’t work. Plixi is hardly unique: it is only one of a number of applications that allow users to link their images to their tweets. Users with images of any value to upload will simply go elsewhere.

The other problem is that WENN and Plixi are seeking to enforce the new terms retrospectively on material already uploaded. Retrospective terms are always a happy hunting ground for lawyers, and both celebs and publishers have plenty of those on tap. No publisher is going to pay for an already published image uploaded under Plixi’s former terms; and any celeb now regretting any previous careless uploads will doubtless be made even more unhappy at seeing WENN and Plixi cash in on their photographic faux pas. So one way or another expect to see this new deal challenged in court before long.

Still, there are worse fates than ending up in court wrangling over ownership of some Z-lister’s private parts. After all, in the good old days cattle rustling was a capital offence.

What I’m thinking…

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