Playing whack-a-mole with copyright poachers
A new study confirming the widespread unauthorized use of newspaper stories on the web ironically demonstrates the futility of efforts to deter copyright poaching at this very, very, very late date.
In a breathless report issued yesterday, the content cops at Attributor, which runs a service scouring the web for copyright poachers, shocked no one when it said more than 75,000 web publishers in the last 30 days used newspaper stories without permission.
Attributor said no less than 112,000 “near-exact copies” of newspaper articles were spotted on sites where they shouldn’t have been, unleashing the usual tut-tutting from industry officials about the need for “new models for content monetization.”
The despair among publishers over lost subscription and advertising revenues is valid, as we say here in California. But publishers have only themselves to blame. They, and they alone, long since forfeited the opportunity to take affirmative action to prevent the uncompensated propagation of their content on the Internet.
The problem for newspapers now is that it’s too late to put the toothpaste back in the tube, as they used to say in the Nixon White House. Because resistance to the widespread dissemination of newspaper content on the web would be fruitless, publishers either can learn to live in the real world or spend substantial sums they can’t afford to flail against a phenomenon they haven’t a prayer of stopping.
Notwithstanding the above logic, it’s looking increasingly like some publishers will opt for the costly and inherently unproductive whack-a-mole game of trying to neutralize copyright poachers by forcing banner-ad networks like Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and others to cut off service to any offending sites.
The never-ending battle against countless ever-changing and constantly emerging copyright poachers almost certainly will prove to be as costly as it is ineffective, as I’ll discuss in a moment. But first, a bit of background:
The problem of unfettered and uncontrollable copyright abuse results directly from the short-sighted and penny-pinching decision most publishers made more than a decade ago to put their content on the Internet without charge and without taking advantage of any of the rights-management technologies that would have limited access to their articles to only authorized users.
The valuable content that differentiated newspapers from almost all other competitors was shoveled thoughtlessly onto the web because publishers never suspected readers or advertisers would accept the Internet as a serious source for news.
They were making so much money on the print newspaper business (until a few years ago) that they saw no reason to develop specialized content and services for the Internet. So “repurposed” content from the morning paper, which already was bought and paid for, was good enough for the web.
The consequence of this thinking is that newspapers ceded the development of this profoundly disruptive new medium to other people, many of whom now are feasting on the free content provided by the press.
There are so many alternative sources of news and information today that newspapers can’t possibly shut them off. Further, an entire generation under the age of 30 has been conditioned to believe that news and information – as well as music, video and all manner of other intellectual property – are supposed to be free.
Thus, we have moved, as Doc Searls brilliantly observed at the recent Harvard roundtable on saving journalism, from an age of information scarcity into an era of information abundance.
Publishers who thrived in scarcity think they somehow can recapture that era by trying to impose an artificial level of scarcity on their content by limiting who sees it and how it is used.
But it’s too late for that. The web is too big, too open, too unwieldy and too unruly.
If newspapers can’t come up with a more constructive way forward, they won’t just spend themselves silly. They also won’t succeed.