Collecting royalties for articles


When a song is played in a public place, like a store or a nightclub, the people who created it receive a small royalty. Royalty collection agencies such as the Performing Rights Society in the UK, function as middle men, collecting revenue and information from music users. They divide up the royalties appropriately.
Journalists and their publications, however, have not had such a luxury. While groups across the world advocate for writers, none help track content use and collect royalties through agreements, such as the Performing rights Society (PRS) and American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) in the United States.

The new Fair Syndication Consortium hopes to change that. Created by the content tracking company Attributor, the FSC says that, due to the web, published content is being used in much the same way as music has been for the past century. But, unlike music, there are no central rights agencies to collect revenue, negotiate contracts and enforce rights.

The FSC hopes to be that agency. It has already signed up wire service Reuters as well as the Deutsche Presse Agentur and the Magazine Publishers of America.

The FSC’s plan is simple, if not ambitious. It promises to turn web-based copying of content from a scourge into a profit centre. But there is doubt as to whether or not it can work, and, if it can work, how worthwhile a solution it will be.

How the FSC works

A content tracking company by trade, Attributor has developed tools used by news organisations across the world, such as The Associated Press, to track where their content appears on the web. Attributor also offers a free version of their service, entitled FairShare, which is targeted at smaller bloggers and publishers that don’t require the full power of Attributor.

The FSC would use the same technology for locating duplicates of works. But, rather than turning the matches over to the publisher for them to take action, Attributor would instead inform the third-party advertising companies that routinely have ads on these sites to procure retribution for the redistribution of the work in question.  The FSC will then collect a portion of the ad revenue from those pages to pass along to the publisher or author.

The idea is to turn copying - and the fractured audience that comes with it - into a profit centre.

According to Attributor’s own research, most publishers receive the bulk of their audience on other sites the potential exists to increase advertising revenue significantly at a time when most newspapers and magazines are struggling to find their footing on the web as they simultaneously deal with a down advertising market.

Revenues would only be sought from sites that used a significant portion of the original content, meaning well beyond excerpting or fair use (assumedly by the US standard). However, the exact percentages of matching content required as well as the percentage of the revenue passed along has not been determined.

The FSC, at this moment, is in the earliest planning stages. There are few concrete facts. All the FSC is attempting to do right now is open up initial conversations with the major advertising networks, and get publishers to sign up. Registration, at the moment, is free. Signing up allows publishers to receive updates on the consortium and have a voice in future decisions.

Despite being so early in the process, the FSC has generated a large amount of positive press. However, there are still difficult questions as to whether or not the FSC can obtain its stated goal.

Problems with the FSC

The biggest challenge the consortium faces is prompting advertising networks, most of which are owned by search engine companies, to agree to pass along the revenue to the publishers. They need also to set up the software and infrastructure required to track revenue and procure Attributor’s reports.

There has been a similarly-styled push by large publications to enforce the Automated Content Access Protocol standard, which provides much more clear guidance on how search engines can index and use content . However, after over two years of lobbying and thousands of publishers adopting the standard, Google has steadfastly declined to implement it - thus making the initiative almost meaningless.

Attributor may have support in this area due to the nature of copyright law in the US, (where most international advertising networks reside) which offers copyright holder’s leverage. This is why all of the major advertising networks offer a means for a copyright holder to report abuse and get the ads removed from around their copied content.

It is possible the FSC may be able to use the threat of takedown notices to motivate advertising networks to find a more amicable solution.

According to Attributor, if it can obtain the support of just three advertising networks - Google Adsense, Doubleclick and Yahoo! Publisher Network – it will have well over 90 percent of the advertising market. However, the industry is constantly in flux, with new advertising networks cropping up regularly. There are still plenty of smaller ad networks sites copiers can turn to if they don’t like the fact their current one is giving some of their revenue to publishers.

This may make it difficult, especially in a down advertising market, to motivate these networks to invest in infrastructure that will ultimately result in lower payouts for their members in order to provide a royalty to the publisher.
In the end, the FSC has a very difficult, but not impossible challenge before it. With the support of enough publishers, especially larger ones, it is possible the royalty system could work. However, at this time, many of Attributor’s own customers, including The Associated Press, have declined to participate, casting some additional doubt on the consortium.

Unanswered questions

Even if the consortium is able to successfully negotiate with the advertising networks and begin a revenue sharing program, there are still many unanswered questions. They include:

  1. Under what conditions will the revenue share be triggered?
  2. What if there are no ads on the site doing the copying?
  3. What will happen if a participating publisher decides they would rather take down a copy than share revenue with it?
  4. How will payments to publishers be handled?
  5. How will transparency be maintained?

In addition to those questions, there are broad concerns about having in place a revenue sharing system that could amount, in some cases, to tacit approval of copying and republishing articles without permission, leading to an increase of infringement and spam, much of it unable to be monetized.

The details of how to build this system in a way that doesn’t create more problems than it solves is part of ongoing discussions. This is a big part of why publishers should consider joining the FSC now, rather than after the rules have been written.

Joining the consortium

At this time, membership in the FSC is completely free. Publishers of all sizes are encouraged to join. However, since deals with the advertising networks have not been created and negotiations have just begun, there is no revenue being shared. Everything is currently in the early stages.

There is very little to lose by joining the consortium, largely because it is so early in the process. Members can request to not have their logo used on promotional materials.

Bottom line

In the end, it is likely that the consortium will not succeed. It is entirely possible that it will come and go without ever sharing a single cent of revenue. However, the conversations it is going to start may help set the tone for the next few years of copyright on the web. As such, this is a rare opportunity for publishers to speak directly to advertisers and syndicators.

While the FSC has the potential to radically change the landscape for how others syndicate content, its potential may not be as important as the conversations it is already prompting.

Flickr photo from user loop_oh