Handing it over: Case study of the Chelsea racism video

When you own a video that goes viral, does it pay to have a Rights Department on your side?

by Jenni Sargent (Director of Eyewitness Media Hub)

Paul Nolan was the latest eyewitness to find himself at the centre of a media scrum as news organisations around the world responded to his footage of Chelsea fans pushing a black man off a Paris metro train.

Nolan used his smartphone to capture the video and chose to send it to the Guardian, stating in this piece that he “was going to leave it at that if he didn’t get a reply”. His uncertainty about its value is surprising since the video contained the kind of shocking behaviour that is bound to spread like wildfire online, which it did. Soon after the video was published by the Guardian, hundreds of copies appeared on YouTube and the story was reported by most major news sites.

Perhaps it was Mr. Nolan’s experience as a journalist that led him to send the video directly to the Guardian instead of posting it to social media, but this decision dramatically changed how his ownership rights were controlled.

As with almost every recent example of eyewitness footage that we have researched at Eyewitness Media Hub, Nolan was approached by numerous news organisations via Twitter, Facebook, email and telephone, each seeking consent to use his video. There was no need to respond or negotiate since the Guardian had chosen to host the video with an embed code, which allowed any other site to include it in their coverage. When the story first broke, however, I couldn’t find many news sites using that original video, watermarked with the Guardian logo.

I personally discovered the video after hearing an interview with Paul Nolan on BBC Radio 4's Today programme on the morning of February 18th 2015. I used my phone to search and found the Guardian article first, followed by MailOnline, the Telegraph, the Mirror and the Independent, each of which featured either a scraped version of the video in their own media players, or embedded copies hosted on YouTube.

Screengrabs from telegraph.co.uk, mirror.co.uk, dailymail.co.uk and independent.co.uk taken just before 8am GMT on Feb 18th 2015 (iPhone set to CET)

Checking back minutes later, the Guardian Rights Department was already in full swing, trying to retain control of the content that they had exclusively obtained.

Within ten minutes, the Telegraph had updated its article with the embed from the Guardian, although they continued to pursue the eyewitness on Twitter to gain permission to use the original.

Screengrabs taken from telegraph.co.uk and twitter.com/livvybolton on 18th Feb 2015

MailOnline came next, choosing to replace their scraped version with the Guardian video, while the Independent and Belfast Telegraph succeeded in embedding this version from YouTube for most of the day, despite the uploader, ‘Ready or Not’, bearing little resemblance to Paul Nolan!

Screengrab from YouTube on Feb 18th 2015. This copy of the video has since been removed.

The Guardian Rights Department soon caught up with Ready or Not, leaving the Independent and Belfast Telegraph with this copyright notice displayed prominently where they intended the video to be:

Composite image using screengrabs taken from belfasttelegraph.couk and independent.co.uk at 16.20pm (GMT) on 18th Feb 2015

The swift and consistent response from the Guardian was impressive, and even though Paul Nolan’s name did not feature alongside their watermarked logo, he was credited underneath, and in the text of every news report. Our current research, due for publication in April, demonstrates that many eyewitnesses who post their photos and videos straight to social media have no idea of their rights to control how their footage might be used and even if they did, they would not have the resources to issue a copyright claim against anyone publishing it without permission. By sending his video straight to the Guardian, Paul Nolan received a form of legal representation that many eyewitnesses we have spoken to would have welcomed to help them navigate the chaotic hours and days after their content is uploaded. Those that capture such newsworthy footage are briefly catapulted to a strange kind of celebrity status but without the direction of an agent.

The Guardian has confirmed that Mr. Nolan did receive a fee for his video, in addition to a share of the substantial syndication sums earned. His comments to the media suggest that money was not his motivation, however.

In a recent workshop that Sam Dubberley and I ran as part of the News:rewired conference in London, the topic of whether eyewitnesses should be paid by news organisation who use their content was hotly debated. Most of the copied versions of Mr.Nolan’s video that featured on YouTube ran behind adverts, and evidence from our ongoing research suggests that, had he uploaded the original publicly online, some news sites would have featured it with their own logos and ‘sponsor messages’. Nolan may not have felt comfortable profiting from someone else’s unpleasant experience, but there is no doubt that his video has a value. He contributed a major news story and the Guardian ensured that he received deserved recognition.

In the days after the video was published, Mr. Nolan received some criticism on Twitter for being a ‘grass’ and his decision to remove a personal blog post further explaining his decision to capture the moment suggests that credit and attribution might not always be a good thing where eyewitness media is concerned. This is another subject covered in our upcoming research and an issue we would urge publishers to consider before using eyewitness content without informed consent.

Mr Nolan remained quiet on Twitter in the days that followed, as the requests for interviews and permission came flooding in, but he did tweet a complimentary link out to an opinion piece in the Mirror.

Screengrab from Paul Nolan’s Twitter account: twitter.com/tipilakota

An interesting observation about Paul Nolan’s support for this article is that he is not mentioned once by name, which suggests that he really was not so interested in credit or financial gain, he simply wanted the story to be told.

***Update: Since this article was published, the Mirror has confirmed that they made contact with the Guardian immediately when the story broke and did pay to use the video.

Eyewitness Media Hub is a non-profit organisation and we are currently seeking funding to support a number of initiatives, including the publication and distribution of the research study mentioned above. If you would like to offer financial support then please contact jenni@emhub.co.

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