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Microsoft in Flickr rights shockr

Microsoft has always been rather strident on the topic of copyright infringement, as you may have noticed. Which makes the tale of its Iconic Britain competition all the more astonishing.
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Microsoft has always been rather strident on the topic of copyright infringement, as you may have noticed. Which makes the tale of its Iconic Britain competition all the more astonishing.

The competition was designed as part of the marketing campaign around Windows Live Image Search, with Nikon as the prize partner. Unlike most photographic competitions, which tend to involve photographers submitting their own work (crazy, I know), this one invited entrants to search for other people's online pictures, then submit the ones they felt were iconic British stuff, in the hope of winning a Nikon camera. As for the photographers themselves, they get nada – not even a link-back to their site or a credit of their name.

Spotted the problem yet?

Inevitably, the reality of this situation hit the photographic community, following which the faeces really hit the fan. Here's a particularly entertaining thread on Flickr, in which members vent at the fact that their photos – many of which had been set for private viewing only – had been scraped by Microsoft and pulled over, creditless, to Microsoft's servers. Amusingly, some of the scraped "entries" were of iconic British landscapes such as that of, er, Tennessee.

The Pro-Imaging website went knocking on Microsoft's door, and got this response:

It is always very important to Microsoft that we respect the intellectual property rights of others, and we regret that this specific marketing program fell short regarding our own very high standards. We are grateful to Pro-Imaging for raising its concerns about the use of photographers' works on the Iconic Britain website. We have since taken steps to obtain the rights to use every image to be featured in the subsequent stages of the Iconic Britain competition. We also welcome the invitation by Pro-Imaging to discuss with them best practices when using photographs in similar competitions.

Note the phrasing: "…taken steps to obtain the rights…". We approached Microsoft on this point today, and were assured that the competition's final stage – planned but as yet without a date – would feature photographs for which Microsoft is "currently obtaining the copyrights". Yep, that means they still don't have the rights. With goodwill like that, what a shocker!

As for Nikon, they've pulled out of the competition in what I would like to think was disgust. Here's their statement:

Nikon UK would like to confirm that it has formally withdrawn its support from Microsoft's Iconic Britain competition. This is due to the feedback and concerns raised by photographers and entrants surrounding the competition mechanic that was developed and promoted by Microsoft. As the camera prizes that were on offer have already been won, Nikon will fulfil its commitment to these winners, however it will not be associated with the competition going forward.

Again, note the phrasing. It seems to me that the prizes Nikon refers to were for early stages of the competition, and someone else is going to have to provide the prizes for the grand finale, whenever that takes place.

Weirdly, the competition website (featuring what look to be poorly edited pictures of Nikon cameras that no longer bear the Nikon logo) still says the final round of voting will close on 14 August (two days from now), despite the fact that that round of voting doesn't seem to have actually started yet.

What else? Oh yes, at one point the competition seems to have decided everyone was a winner. Heck - why not?

A final point of interest regards the judges for the competition. We can fairly assume that Nikon's judge, Simon Coleman, has now fled the judging process, but what of the remaining three judges? These would be Mike Selby, editorial director of the Rex Features stock agency, and – most splendidly – Brian Blessed and Joanna Lumley. No word yet as to whether they're still involved.

It's all a very bizarre story, and particularly outrageous coming from Microsoft – a company we thought knew a thing or two about digital rights. We have asked them how this all managed to slip through the net (a question that was met with 15 seconds of stony silence from Microsoft's PR when I tried it over the phone - let's see if email works!), and will of course let you know as soon as we hear back.

UPDATE: Selby, Blessed and Lumley are all still judges, Microsoft just told us. They still refuse to explain how they (Microsoft) screwed up so badly, though.

Editorial standards