Steal This Article . . . Please!

So, yet one more information dinosaur, fat reserves dwindling, wakes up from its long nap, looks around and is startled by change. Of course it then begins trampling around with its weight's worth of lawyers, trying to put the pieces of its broken eggs back together by legal force.

You guessed it. The dinosaur is the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) and its cohorts. They claim that search engines and news aggregators are stealing their content, and they want to be paid for it!

Many old business models do not work well with the Internet. Rather, they may work okay, but the Internet allows for new products and services that often compete more efficiently with the older products and services.

Some of the first efforts to restrict linking and posting of information on the Internet came from newspapers. I recall the first big case as having been in Scotland, where someone created a local newspaper but had no reporting staff and, instead, just published an online-only newspaper that linked to the previous newspaper's online articles but "framed" them in the new newspaper's look and feel.

The courts eventually held, in that case, that what is now called "deep linking" is okay, but that you cannot deep link to the information of others and try to present it in a way that consumers might be tricked into thinking that it is your own content.

This kind of "confusion as to content" is quite common. It's a long-standing, cyclical issue here at the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP) that as soon as we publish a new issue of Planning for Higher Education, we start getting telephone calls and emails from people who want to buy from us the books--published by others--that we reviewed in the latest issue. (That actually may someday soon be a possibility, but it certainly never has been thus far, and this has been happening since before the Web existed.)

After the Scottish case, things were quiet on the deep linking front, but then public broadcasting entities and some other organizations decided to start putting user license agreements on their web pages stating that users swore not to deep link to any content past their front page without first getting written approval. Public opinion and good sense beat that effort down rather quickly.

Now, the latest: WAN, which represents 18,000 newspapers and 73 national newspaper associations, is smarter than most dinosaurs. It is, at least, beginning its efforts in Europe, where the principles of free speech and fair use are not as deeply embedded in the collective psyche as in the United States.

It's talking tough: "We need search engines, and they do help consumers navigate an increasingly complicated medium, but they're building [their business] on the back of kleptomania," says Gavin O'Reilly, president of WAN.

WAN says that the publishers are not dinosaurs, and that they have built "compelling" portals and websites with valuable content. It argues that many users use the search engine not to find the articles that they then read, but instead just skim the titles and single paragraphs served up as the entire diet of news they are reading. I'm not sure about that. I think that newspapers especially, have made, from Day One of the Internet, a ritual of not linking out to other news sources. Could that have been a mistake? What if USA Today had decided 10 years ago that in addition to its own news, it would provide a Google-type search of other newspapers? What would that look like now?

This is my first reaction, of course, but listing a news article title which links to the article, and shows just a few sentences of the article is not theft. I really wonder if the publishers have any hard statistics to show they are losing readership (which they are) and subscribers (which they are) from search engines as opposed to, say, blogs or new, original online-only websites. The New York Times, for example, recently did the experiment of going to "Times Select" for access to some of its content and blew past its first subscription goal well ahead of time.*

WAN argues that the news aggregators and search engines need the content providers in order to exist. That is arguable as well, especially if by "content providers" you mean the ones who belong to organizations like WAN. Whether there is such a dependence going forward, given alternative news sources like blogs and the plethora of new functionalities coming out, is not as clear. In fact, think about what Google and others could do to individual newspapers if it were to decide not to include Ann Coulter's columns or The Washington Post (One can hope.) articles in search results. I bet there'd quickly be a lawsuit about that!

It's not at all likely that legal action based on existing regulations could be successful for the publishers. That's obviously why they are starting down the legislative route, wanting to change the rules after the fact. Maybe they'll find a way to keep deep linking from being effective?

They could use a secure algorithm to randomize the addresses of every page in the site, say once a day. Your own portal has the key and can take people there, of course, but anyone who links to you will lose that link within 24 hours. Hmm. I wouldn't want to have to set it up, but maybe it can be done.

It would probably be cheaper than hiring the European version of Jack Abramoff.

* Something missed by many but which I appreciate very much is that before "Times Select," you had to "register" to access NY Times articles. As a result, I rarely linked to them in news listings that I create. When The Times went to the new system, it required that you be a paying subscriber to access the select stuff--like Tom Friedman's great columns--but it opened up everything else; which means it's a lot easier to effectively deep link to The Times than it was six months ago. Left hand/right hand? Who knows?

About the Author

About the author: Terry Calhoun is Director of Communications and Publications for the Society for College and University Planning (SCUP). You can contact him through CT's IT Trends forum by clicking here. View more articles by Terry Calhoun.

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