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Re-inventing The Wheal

5 January 2006 - EPUK

It’s easy to become blasé about assaults on copyright, that lifeblood of the freelance photographer and writer. It seems everyone’s trying to grab a piece of what Mark Getty, Chairman of Getty Images, the world’s largest photo agency, has referred to as “the oil of the 21st century”.

But you’d expect an organisation that claims to represent photographers to defend the right of their members to own, control and licence their work as they please. No? Well, ok then, you’d at least expect them not to attack the law that helps protect and feed their members.

Think again. A storm has broken out over the publication of an article in the Journalist, the National Union of Journalists’ monthly magazine, calling for the abolition of copyright. The author, one Chris Wheal, is in fine Dave Spart form, railing against capitalists, lawyers and media moguls. But his real bile is reserved for freelance journalists and photographers, described as “mini-capitalists and junior globalisation greed merchants”.

“In the same way,” he rants, “that drug companies take local herbal remedies from developing countries then refine the raw ingredients down to saleable drugs, these people take material from various sources and hone them into a single article or photo.”

Wheal Of Confusion

The article is a blunder fest of spectacular proportions as Wheal, eager to prove his avant-garde credentials, merely reveals his ignorance. Things get worse when he tries to seize the moral high ground by associating his arguments with Oxfam, confusing patent law with copyright in the process. Fighting to prove the evils of copyright [“one of capitalism’s worst excesses”], he manages to conflate patent law [often used by marauding multinational corporations to impose their will on developing nations] with copyright law [often used by individual journalists to protect themselves against marauding multinational corporations]: an easy mistake for the uninformed to make.

One of the many ironies is that a simple Google search can find equally controversial, if rather more intellectually rigorous, arguments in favour of copyright abolition. These at least address the issue of the loss in income to individuals currently benefiting from copyright law, and how that loss might be replaced, thereby helping to ensure a continuing flow of new creative work.

One might think that the financial implications of his proposal would be the aspect that would exercise Wheal the most – he is after all a financial journalist. But on the contrary Wheal appears to be not only oblivious to the implications, he fails to make a single proposal for what might replace copyright law. The best he can manage is “let’s get paid a decent amount for the work we do now” followed by the absurd rallying cry of “collectivise the databases and make them available for free to all”.

Yes, that’s right. The only thing keeping Wheal’s “impoverished, starving farmers” down is the fact that they can’t afford to connect their laptops to LexisNexis.

So Wheal’s piece is not only unoriginal, confused, inaccurate and misleading, but also poorly researched. Not to mention, in the words of one observer, “childishly simplistic”.

Squeaky Wheal Gets Oiled At The NUJ: Is This Man Half Full? Photo: © Martin Jenkinson

Wheals On Fire

NUJ photographers contacted by EPUK reacted with fury. Responded Dan White: “Photographers and photo libraries largely survive financially by selling a licence to use their copyrighted photographs. We don’t live commission by commission. To base an argument on the idea that we do is not only offensive. It is plain ignorant.”

Steve Mansfield-Devine commented: “What I find strange about this whole idea of abolishing copyright is the absurd idea that the protections offered by copyright law favour only the corporates or the rich. We operate in a field where our work is easily stolen or replicated. As a one-man band, copyright law is one of the few protections I have against companies who would be only too pleased to be able to use or re-use my work without hindrance – or payment.”

Mansfield-Devine went on to question Wheal’s motives: “Wheal appears to want to take an anti-globalisation, anti-corporate stance. Yet we have all suffered from corporates who believe they can plunder our work. In that respect, it’s my personal feeling that Wheal has shown himself only too willing to roll over and have his tummy tickled to satisfy the avaricious and selfish desires of publishers and other large corporations.”

Wheal also appeared oblivious to the PR disaster his article represents for the NUJ, ironically for someone who describes himself as a public relations advisor. One photographer stormed “I am seriously considering my position vis a vis staying in the bloody NUJ – that Wheal twit may well have decided the issue for me”.

Whealer Dealer

So who exactly is this “Wheal twit”? His CV at the Wheal Associates website – every page of which carries a copyright notice – paints a picture of a rather conservative-sounding financial journalist. There’s only a brief mention of past union activity, and no reference at all to 19th Century anarchist philosophers, “globalisation greed merchants”, “media moguls” or “giving power to the people”; but then that might scare off clients like the Institute of Directors and the Institute of Chartered Accountants. He describes himself as a “managing director, marketing copywriter, public relations advisor and trainer”.

Among his interests he lists golf, good food and wine – the usual revolutionary anarchist stuff – but omits one of his favourites: suing people to protect his own copyright. That’s right. Chris Wheal, anarcho-campaigner against globalisation, scourge of repressive copyright laws, is also Chris Wheal, aspiring mini-capitalist and junior globalisation greed merchant, enthusiastic defender of his own copyright.

Nor is he bashful about it, as his writings in the London Review of Books reveal. And while using the NUJ to campaign against the copyright laws, he’s quite happy to get the union to pursue infringers at his behest. Only last April the Freelance, magazine of the NUJ London Freelance Branch, reported on how NUJ Freelance Organiser John Toner had successfully negotiated with the Guardian on Wheal’s behalf.

Spinning Wheal

Doubtless Wheal would claim that he is simply following the law as it exists now while campaigning for what he sees as an improvement. But that excuse – it can hardly be called a defence – fails on two counts.

Firstly, if he finds current copyright law so unacceptable he has no need to publish under that law, much less sue people he regards as infringers. He could simply publish his own work under a Creative Commons or “copyleft” licence, through which he could easily allow free access to his material to whoever he wants, while simultaneously preventing the “media moguls” from ripping him off.

And secondly, it takes a very odd mindset to so actively profit from an existing law whilst campaigning for the abolition of that law, thereby denying the rights he has enjoyed to those colleagues whom he claims to represent.

Wheal’s got form anyway where photographers are concerned. When NUJ photographers campaigned last year for their own organiser within the union, Wheal spoke against them. Nor is he too keen on freelances generally: He caused a minor furore two years ago when he climbed on his Journalist soapbox to deride freelances as “crappy amateurs” and “subsidised freeloaders”, “hacks who can’t earn a living from their trade because their output is unwanted and often unprintable”.

In fact he has an extraordinarily low opinion of journalism per se, describing it last January as “an unregulated job title that is open to charlatans, miscreants and the literary equivalent of snake-oil salesmen”.

Which funnily enough are exactly the words many people would use to describe public relations advisors.

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As we say in Texas: Somewhere in London , a horse is missing its ass.

Comment 1: Ellis Vener, 16 September 2006, 08:18 pm

Another bloody useless ‘Consultant’
Much freelance work is non commissioned and self directed, often an image is as a result of much research for which there would be no reward wothout the protection afforded by the Copyright laws.

Comment 2: Steve Thomas, 24 September 2006, 11:28 am

A large part of my work is done for nothing for individuals, groups & organizations that cannot afford professional photographers but what the quality.
I live on selling some of my work and refuse to join huge image libraries instead building my own with a specialist field that will continue to help those with no or limited budgets does this make me scourge of the earth?

Comment 3: Hugh Hill, 29 June 2007, 03:38 pm

I’m only an amateur photographer and followed a link from the article on abuses of police powers regarding photographers. Very interesting and quite disturbing.

However, once I follow the link I get to an ad-hominem attack that fails itself to make any cohesive or reasoned point. It seems Mr Wheal has put your nose out of joint but you both belong to a similar school of journalism.

The whole question of laws concerning so-called intellectual property (of which copyright is probably the least objectionable) is being conducted without public scrutiny. The results strongly favour large interests and are presented to the rest of us as a fait accomplis. Mr Wheal, regardless of his personal character, has every right to advocate radical change. Personal attacks merely cloud the issue – or was that your intention?

Comment 4: steve, 18 July 2008, 02:40 am

Had he stood at a union meeting in Australia and made this sort of ludicrous comment he’d have been lynched. The Media Entertainment Arts Alliance (union for arts and journalism in Australia) is in the process of setting itself up as the go-to point for freelancers to deal with copyright issues and is actively lobbying against copyright theft by major publications nationwide. What we’re seeing here is that the freelancers are getting a great deal of support from employed full time journalists and photographers.
It seems to me Wheal needs to have a very good rethink on this issue and realise his hypocrisy will only be paid back in kind with public ridicule. Copyright is here to stay and for good reason.

Comment 5: Mark Greenmantle, 22 August 2010, 04:29 am

The problem with “Bro” Chris Wheal is that, when ever he opens his mouth, many journalists are never quite sure whether he is taking the p*** or making a serious point.

However, I would love to hear his views on me being almost unable to sell my copy unless I sign away all my rights until the Day of Judgement in this universe and parallel universes yet to be discovered. There is a time & a place for being a “professional Celt” but weaking trade unionism isn’t one of them

Comment 6: Bro Chris Youett, 18 February 2013, 03:58 pm

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