Content cops or Keystone Kops?
While print publishers are well within their rights to crack down on web publishers who violate their copyrights through the unauthorized use of articles and visual media, the simple facts are:
:: There is no efficient way to identify and extract payment from the vast array of web publishers who may be ripping off content.
:: There is a limited population of publishers generating enough money to make the effort worthwhile.
Accordingly, there is a danger that the emerging initiatives among newspaper and other publishers to police content poachers may come to look more like an episode from the Keystone Kops than an effective and profitable business strategy.
If everything were hunky-dory in the publishing business, this exercise in enforcing the value of copyright might worth a shot. It should be noted, however, that the music industry, which has been aggressively trying to battle pirates for 15 years, admits that 10 free songs are downloaded for every one that is purchased.
But things are far from hunky or dory for publishers, as the latest dismal earnings reports attest.
A content crackdown could prove to be a costly and unnecessary distraction at a time that publishers ought to be focusing on controlling the most important thing they can control: Monetizing the visitors and page views at their own sites, an objective that has become increasingly elusive for many of them.
The above conclusions result in part from an effort to gauge the potential effectiveness of tracking down copyright violators by using a service called Attributor, which at the moment represents the industry standard in poacher-nabbing technology.
As you can see from the results of the test-drive here, the state of the art at this writing suggests that a considerable amount of human judgment/capital would be necessary to actually DO something about unauthorized content poachers.
It is not the least bit clear that the cost of pursuing violators ever would be equal to the additional revenue it might bring in. Here’s an example from the test-drive:
I discovered that 99% of one of my posts had been grabbed and republished by a site called Newspapers Watch, which describes itself as written by “Musomar” a "journalist with 25 years of experience" in Malaysia.
This particular site does not seem to carry advertising, so there would be no commercial reason to pursue the author. Even if the site did have ads, the sales would be so trivial – and the hassles of tracking down a copyright violator in Malaysia to complicated – that no one would bother to do so.
This case was not an extreme example. In reviewing all the instances identified by Attributor, I found no violations by a site whose profile or advertising sales were so significant that I would dream of seeking payment.
Based on this admittedly limited test, it appears that it would make sense only to go after only the relatively small number of sites what both use (a) lots of unauthorized content and (b) generate significant advertising revenues.
How many of them are there? Honestly, I don’t know. But, judging from the sampling turned up by Attributor, probably fewer than you would think.
Sites sophisticated enough to generate lots of traffic and advertising revenue generally will be smart enough to avoid copyright violations.
They either will subscribe to syndication services or try to position excerpts from copyrighted articles – see this example from Huffington Post– as fair use. Fair use is the provision of the copyright law that allows snippets of protected content to be used in news stories and reviews.
In other words, online publishers with something to lose either will pay print publishers or figure out ways to continue using copyrighted content for free.
The ones who have little or nothing to lose may well continue to use copyrighted material brazenly. Does it make sense for publishers to hire David Boise and Theodore B. Olson to pursue them?
If the time, trouble and cost of policing content are likely to net only limited amounts of new revenue for print publishers, don’t they have more important things to do?