The Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008 came into effect in January 2009, and Section 49 of the Coroners and Justice Bill is currently being reviewed. Critics say both of these Acts could impact on the creation of comic books and how they are sold, and both have the potential to land innocent people in court, on the sex offender register or in jail.
From 26th January 2009 it became illegal for anyone in England and Wales to possess an "extreme" image, even if the activity itself is legal. While the Act has rightly been brought in to address obscene and degrading imagery prevalent on parts of the Web, critics fear that as with other regulation, its interpretation is open to the same kind of abuses that have been fought in the US by the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. (This 1996 comic illustrates how the other parts of the Criminal and Justice Act law has been interpreted by the police and used against football fans, way before the new revisions came in).
Among others raising concerns, Amnesty International, Liberty, leading adacademics and human rights lobby group Justice form a long list of people and organisations concerned about the reached of the proposed "extreme image" laws, particularly because of the vagueness of what constitutes an "extreme image".
During the period the law was being drawn up, Parliament's joint Human Rights committee were very unimpressed by the Ministry of Justice's definitions in this Criminal Justice bill.
"Individuals seeking to regulate their conduct in accordance with the criminal law cannot be certain that they will not be committing a criminal offence by having certain images in their possession," the Committee argued. "We look forward to the Government bringing forward an amendment to make the scope of the new offence more precise."
The Government did not do so.
Alex Dymock, of pro-porn pressure group Backlash, says the law will do more harm than good. “It's infantilising women and sets men up as rapists and this does nothing for gender relations," she argued during an interview for the Reading Evening Post.
“Some fairly innocent images are going to be liable for prosecution with this law and I don’t believe it will save any lives."
In response to wide-ranging concerns, the newly-formed Comic Book Alliance is challenging the Prime Minister and the government as a whole to respect the concerns of artists, writers, publishers, readers and retailers all over the UK and include a specific clarification in the law that ensures that no innocent comic creators or owners of comics can ever be prosecuted unfairly by a mis-interpretation of the current laws.
By comics, the Alliance mean all forms of the medium, including newspaper strips, web comics, Graphic Novels and serial comic books either imported or UK produced.
Naturally, the issue of indecent images is highly charged and many creators who've been prepared to discuss the issue remain uncertain that the Act will indeed result in problems for the industry.
But there are wider issues. James Graham, Campaigns and Communications Manager of Unlock Democracy (www.unlockdemocracy.org.uk) is also concerned by a worrying culture that is developing within the police. He cites the use of another law, Form 696, Section 27 Orders and the decision to confiscate the War on Terror Boardgame and the recent example of an artist being arrested for taking photos in Elephant and Castle for being an "unacceptable security risk."
"There is a pattern forming, as Henry Porter has been chronicling in the Observer over the last few years," he argues in a post on the downtheubes forum. "A few years ago, this sort of police harassment was limited to unloveable political demonstrators, youths and suspected terrorists who just happened to have brown skin. They have been notably beginning to cast their net more widely recently.
"Put it this way; you may be satisfied that there is nothing in your collection produced "solely or principally for the purpose of sexual arousal" but would your local police necessarily agree with you? How would you like your home or local comic shop raided as a test case? How will the Daily Mail react? And subsequently, what sort of chilling effect would three or four such raids have on publishers and retailers? My concern is that these new laws are a green light for the authorities to try it on."
• View the Petition at: petitions.number10.gov.uk/Protect-Comics
• Comic Book Alliance web site
The Bills in Full