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Beef Of The Week #381: Brian May v Barbara

By | Published on Friday 17 November 2017

Adam Lambert + Queen

Brian May, I am told, is a very nice man. And I’m sure he is. I’ve never personally met him though. So what I know of him these days, mainly, is that he’s prone to a bit of a moan. And moans that are occasionally slightly ill-judged at that.

Not always, of course. Last year he complained on his blog about the tyranny of leaf blowers in Kensington, used by the council to (badly, he noted) clear the roads around his home. In 2015, he complained about the same council allowing so many of his neighbours to build “anti-social mega-basements”, turning the area, he said, into a “hellhole”. Both of those moans, while a little ranty, are about issues where I have sympathy with May.

And there’s also his long-running campaigning for animal rights, particularly the protection of badgers, which he’s often pushed forward with some humour. Like that time he turned an internet meme into a pop song.

Though in June this year, he had a rant on his blog about the redesign of British Airways’ first class seating, which made it more difficult to look out of the window.

“I hate it”, he wrote. “It costs an arm and a leg to travel this way and I feel that we no longer get our money’s worth. In the old days you sat right next to the window and the view was wide and spectacular. Now they sit you about three feet from the window and so low down all you can see from your seat is a small patch of sky. It’s boring – frustrating”.

I get that if you fly a lot and can afford it, going first class is nice. And as someone who prefers to sit by the window on planes, I do understand why he’d rather be able to see out. Though ranting about rejigs in first class in a “who’s with me?” style, when the vast majority of those reading have to tolerate much more cramp conditions – with or without a view – whenever they fly, does drift somewhat into the misjudged zone.

But this isn’t a Beef Of The Recent Past column, so I should probably start getting to the point. So, here goes. Brian May is a big advocate of copyright. He thinks copyright is just great. And that the world would be a much better place if everyone would respect it more.

Back in 2012, he joined the motley crew of Andrew Lloyd-Webber, Elton John, Simon Cowell, Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, Robert Plant, Professor Green, Tinie Tempah and his mate Roger Taylor in writing to then Prime Minister David Cameron to ask that he better enforce copyright laws.

His own blog also contains plenty of copyright notices. Including one at the top of each page declaring that you should not reproduce anything from said website without express permission. Do you know, I didn’t get his permission to reproduce any of those quotes above. Though I’m going to cite the news reporting copyright exception. Because yes, the Beef Of The Week is definitely news.

Though, by quoting copyright technicalities, that does make me a bit like Donald Trump. Last year May moaned about the then US presidential hopeful using a Queen song at one of his rallies. But Trump can play whatever he likes at his rallies providing the venue has the relevant blanket licences from the US collecting societies. That’s possibly ethically wrong, given the political context, but it’s what copyright law says.

Whatever, my point is, Brian May really gets the hump when people use his stuff without expressly asking him first. Which made it seem slightly hypocritical when he got all angry this week after someone else objected to him using their stuff.

This all began when May got a takedown notice on Instagram after he posted someone else’s photo without permission. What followed was probably a good advert for not going near the internet when you’re pissed off about something.

May had posted a photo to his Instagram account and then overnight the apparent owner of said photo had reported the posting as copyright infringement. May’s account had been disabled as a result, and it had taken him 45 minutes to resolve the matter and get it up and running again. Which, whoever is in the right or wrong here, is going to be annoying. And this was the point at which he decided to address the matter publicly.

“How RUDE”, he wrote in a new Instagram post. “I’m usually very careful to credit anyone whose photos I post – but in this case, at the end of the day, I must have forgotten”.

He went on: “Rather than write to me and say, ‘Dear Brian, you seem to have forgotten to credit me on this picture’, this person – Barbara Kremer is her name – reported me to Instagram and they not only took the picture down but disabled my whole account until I’d dealt with the issue – which took about 45 minutes of my time that I could not afford because the link refused to work on my phone”.

The photo in question appears to have been taken by a fan from the audience at a Queen show. As far as I can tell, the woman in question is not a professional photographer, just a private individual, so naming her in this rant does seem like a bit of a shitty thing to do, as it could be seen as him calling on his fanbase to bully Barbara further. Something he might have thought about had he not written his rant while still in a rage. He wasn’t finished taking her to task, either.

“What an incredibly unfriendly act from you, Barbara”, he said. “You not only took my picture and are evidently exploiting my image – and making money off me without so much as a ‘by your leave’ – but you actually stop me using a picture of myself! What a crazy world we live in these days. All I can say is that if you feel you were ‘violated’, I feel pretty violated myself. To the point where if I ever discover that you are at one of our concerts in future, look out, because, logically, I will be tempted to have you thrown out”.

There is zero evidence that Barbara has ever made, or attempted to make, any money out of this photograph, as far as I can tell. Just because she doesn’t want other people posting her photos, doesn’t mean she’s on the make. Just as simply appearing in a photo doesn’t automatically give you the right to do whatever you want with it.

May also started off his diatribe, of course, by saying that he had simply forgotten to credit the photographer in this case, as if the credit would have put him in the clear.

However, credits, while nice – and arguably obliged under the moral rights of copyright law – do not replace the need to ask for someone’s permission before using their creative work. He could have stamped Barbara’s name all over the photo, but she would still have been within her rights to issue a takedown notice.

The thing May and his pop star buddies were particularly pushing for in that letter to David Cameron back in 2012 was for his government to implement certain elements of the 2010 Digital Economy Act. In particular, systems for dealing with online copyright infringement.

“Competition in the creative sector is in talent and innovation, not labour costs or raw materials”, they said. “We can realise this potential only if we have a strong domestic copyright framework, so that UK creative industries can earn a fair return on their huge investments creating original content. Illegal activity online must be pushed to the margins. This will benefit consumers, giving confidence they are buying safely online from legal websites”.

You’d think, therefore, May would be excited to see a copyright notification system in action for himself. Such systems aren’t perfect – hence all the safe harbour shouting of late – but at least here was a system via which a copyright owner, like Barbara, could protect her content online if and when it was used without licence. Hurrah for the system!

Though, not long after his Barbara rant, May was back complaining that he’d found an account on Instagram pretending to be him and using his photos without permission. “I’ve asked the owner of the site to desist but got no response”, he wrote. “And so far we don’t seem to have been able to get Instagram to take action”.

Indeed, that account is still there now, so perhaps the system doesn’t work after all. Boo. Barbara’s been in touch too, and it seems the system worked a little too well for her.

“I just heard from the lady, Barbara, who took the photo of me”, says May. “Now I can see that it’s a whole catalogue of misunderstandings and slight misjudgements all round. Which added up to a big mess. Her message was delightful – and honest and bravely apologetic. I have to say I sincerely regret my part in it too, and I have told her so”.

Either way, whatever we think about copyright systems, I think we can reaffirm our previous statement: don’t post things on social media while you’re angry.

He continues: “I think there are lessons to be learned from the whole thing, and I’m hoping that Barbara and I can take a moment and together come up with some strategies for other people who find themselves in this situation (and there must be many) – to try to clear the way for better understanding in future. I’ve certainly learned some lessons already”.

Concluding, and possibly noting that his naming of Barbara had resulted in a bit of bullying, he said: “Please let’s ALL hold out a hand to Barbara. We can explain later, but she never intended things to happen the way they did”.

So that’s all worked out just fine then. Maybe Barbara will even allow Brian to re-post her photo of him now. And May’s plane issue seems to have been fixed too. He appears to have switched to private jets. Such a sensible move – who’s with me?