Content thieves: To catch or not to catch?


Scott Baradell is a former journalist and former executive for Belo Corporation, a US-based network of over 20 local TV stations. He writes on his blog, “Newspapers are running out of time to solve the problem of content theft”.

He describes what, in the realm of online media, is known as the echo chamber: a majority of individuals benefiting from reporting the news but doing nothing to support the collection of news. From bloggers repeating information from mainstream media stories to YouTube users embedding clips of news broadcasts, Baradell feels many online “journalists” are getting a free ride, building their news empires on the efforts of others.image

In describing a potential solution, Baradell cites an op-ed piece in the Dallas Morning News written by John Chachas, an executive with a financial advisory company. Chachas writes of the need for an “industry-wide system to track and charge for re-use of their content”. That could be accomplished via a “rights society” as with music publishers, or through the use of electronic watermarks, which could facilitate digitised tracking and usage charges.”

He continues: “Publishers cannot continue the practice of paying for the editorial staffs to source the news and then have it used for free by competing web aggregators.”

Likewise, in an unrelated but similar article in The New York Times Brian Stetler writes that copyright holders, namely large newspapers and media organisations, are defending themselves against “excerpted” use of the content. Often these outlets are going to court over even just headline aggregation of their content.

This raises the question: Does mass media have a problem with content theft? If so, what can be done about it?

The case of The Associated Press

If any company has done as Baradell describes, it has been The Associated Press. The AP has been extremely aggressive in legally pursuing sites and companies that it feels are misusing its news content.

The first major case involved a dispute the company had with the American left-leaning news aggregator Drudge Retort. In that case, AP filed a series of takedown notices against the site, accusing it of copyright infringement for using headlines quoted from AP articles.

Although the case was eventually settled with Drudge Retort in a manner that caused the articles to remain offline, the incident was a public relations disaster for the AP. It was banned as a source on TechCrunch and were generally decried by bloggers as being unfair.image

A more recent case, however, involved All Headline News and the AP’s lawsuit against them for distributing headlines from the AP without permission. The AP won a small victory in the American courts this week with a judge allowing the case to move forward, but much of the AP’s argument hinges on a precedent from a 1918 case. In that suit, it was ruled, that “hot news” could be protected, even if the information was purely factual and met certain criteria.

While the AP has again scored a victory, it has once again been chided and ridiculed for its reliance on a 90-year-old ruling. Much of this ruling has likely been rendered invalid by more recent reforms in copyright law.

But even if the AP is successful in its legal campaigns, it only has dealt with a small handful of those sites that use lots of its content. Millions more remain.

The RIAA/IFPI model

Baradell speaks well of the RIAA, the American counterpart to the IFPI.

“Say what you will about the RIAA. Ultimately, it made the trains run on time,” he says.

The RIAA may not be the best model for print media. Yes, it has been far more aggressive than even the AP in enforcing its rights, having sued over 20,000 file sharers in the US alone over the past decade. But they have not made a noticeable dent in file sharing. And, despite Baradell’s claims that “more people are paying for music now than stealing it,” the truth is that illegal file sharing still far outpaces legal downloads, even though legal downloads are growing at a faster pace.

The music industry continues to suffer a severe decline in revenues and, while its situation is not as dire as many newspapers, record labels are facing many of the same choices as print media outlets. Given this and a strong consumer backlash against strong tactics, the RIAA announced that it is abandoning its strategy of individual lawsuits, shifting to a strategy that involves working with Internet service providers.

The RIAA strategy, while not the unmitigated disaster many would like to believe, has clearly not “saved” the music industry. At most, it has simply delayed or lessened the problems it faces.

Problems with the system

Being more aggressive about protecting original reporting is riddled with problems. imageMost European countries have narrow definitions of fair dealing, an element that came to light in the Google News lawsuit in Belgium. It likely can stop such use of their content. But differing international views on “fair use” and “fair dealing” as well as the sheer number of uses make enforcement impossible.

In the US, however, fair use exemptions are more broad and likely allow such use. While the AP has had some luck with the “hot news” statute in the US, as mentioned earlier, those rights are limited and won’t address the vast majority of reuses of original reporting.

Furthermore, because news reporting trades in factual information, something that can almost never be copyright protected in any nation, defending original reporting becomes tricky when actual words or images are not reused.

Finally, even if there were a legal system in place for dealing with such “freeloading” by amateur online journalists, the sheer number of those who reuse reporting makes it impossible to enforce. With millions of blogs and no means to sue all of them, news organisations would be powerless to actually enforce their rights across the board.

To make matters worse, the idea of central rights-clearing agencies has been tried. Companies such as the Copyright Clearance Center and iCopyright have long provided a way for newspapers and wire services to license their content on a micro level. These companies are doing both brisk and growing business. But they are not able to offset the revenue news organisations are losing from other sources.

Aggressive enforcement and licensing would likely not be possible without serious global copyright reform and, even with such reforms, might not be practical at all. All in all, it seems to be a losing strategy for news organisations.

Seeking alternatives

How do news organisations fix this problem? Someone has to pay for the initial gathering and reporting of news. Although some bloggers have tried a more professional track and are doing their own gathering, most are not. They are not contributing in any way to the gathering of news, even as they fragment the audience.image

One solution often tossed around is switching to a subscription model. However, with free news being so broadly available, paid subscriptions are a tough sell.

The more likely solution is providing journalism and news reporting as a service. This is something many freelance reporters do already, creating free content for the web they expect to be copied. But they do custom assignments for paying clients. Likewise, news organisations could provide a similar service by gathering facts and information for a fee and providing it to bloggers and commentators to do their reporting. This would be similar to a wire service, but with a much heavier emphasis on encouraging changes and rewriting.

The idea is to de-emphasise the sale of either the audience or the content itself and focus on marketing what newsrooms can provide: Resources and ability to collect raw news.

It will be a very difficult thing to do and, no doubt, there will be a lot of failed business models tried. But it is clear enough from the layoffs and closures that the current business model has not been working.


Media outlets do have a reason to worry about the way their content is being used. With the audiences of traditional publications and broadcast stations dissipating and the audience on the web becoming fragmented, finding a way to pay for the original reporting and news is a difficult problem.

Sadly though, in this time of upheaval there is no easy or any singular right answer. News organisations are going to have to be creative in finding ways to overcome this problem.

Existing solutions have not worked and don’t seem to have good chances to do so in the future. Sadly, the traditional business models of the media seem to be fading. Without radical thinking and shifts in how news is gathered, it is almost inevitable: Many of the stalwarts of modern journalism may be forced to close or severely scale back.

Fixing this problem will not be easy, but it is clear that the music industry model is not the answer for which editors are looking.

Flickr photos from users Teaeff, William Beutler and Joe Thorn