Thursday, April 23, 2009

Content cops or Keystone Kops?

Beleaguered newspaper and magazine publishers may gain a certain amount of emotional satisfaction from mounting elaborate efforts to chase down online content poachers, but the payback may be more psychic than economic.

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?


Anonymous chuckl said...

Nice post, Alan. I was talking to someone from wikimedia today and he said something that I think distinguishes traditional media from media that's born online. the attitude at wikipedia is, "assume good faith," which is almost the direct opposite of what traditional publishers in print or music assume. Sure, there will be the occasional bad actor, but everybody's not out to steal from you. Quite the contrary. Until traditional publishers can change their thinking away from "everybody's trying to steal something from us" to "how can we benefit from this ecosystem" they will continue to be online failures and they might as well just give up and squeeze whatever revenue they can from their shriveling print products

6:43 PM  
Anonymous Rich Pearson said...

Hi Alan,

As usual, you present a thoughtful analysis, and we definitely are interested in your input.

I wanted to clarify the two facts mentioned above

Fact #1: There is no efficient way to identify and extract payment from the vast array of web publishers who may be ripping off content.

*** Individually contacting the multitude of sites who reuse professional content is indeed a significant effort. What the Fair Syndication Consortium proposes is to contact the ad networks, not the individual sites and request a share of the ad revenue made on pages containing full copies of your work. While there are many ad networks, our analysis of reuse across over 250 million articles shows that the lion's share of revenue is made via a few ad networks.

The process for publishers will be very efficient and we have solicited publisher input to make this to ensure that there is minimal to no ongoing effort. The core effort is done by Attributor finding the copied content and identifying the ad network(s) on the page. As you mention, there will be some manual review required, but this will be handled by a review team at Attributor, supplemented by tools we've built via our 25 publisher test in January and ongoing testing.

Fact #2: There is a limited population of publishers generating enough money to make the effort worthwhile.

Mileage will definitely vary from publisher to publisher as not all content is copied at the same rate. From the 25 publisher test across 250 million articles and our ongoing testing, the opportunity is indeed substantial - using remnant cpm rates, we believe the annual opportunity is at least $250 million.

The Fair Syndication Consortium is not meant to be a savior for publishers - we can't guarantee that it is a $250 million annual opportunity without ad network participation as they are the only ones who know this answer.

What we can guarantee is that Attributor will provide publishers with a low-effort way to capture an incremental online revenue stream.

I'd be happy to get your feedback and answers any additional questions - you can email me at

8:32 PM  
Blogger Steve Ross said...

I think the most important/efficient thing media can do to start balancing the books is to expand advertising revenue -- going after smaller, local advertisers that have long been ignored by sales staffs and perhaps emulating Google in per-click rates or even sharing advertisers' revenue.

It will take more time to develop exclusive content people might actually pay for on-line.

10:31 PM  
Anonymous Rick Subber said...

It's more or less true that newspapers have never charged readers a fair economic price for the content; rather, advertisers have largely paid for it. The "paid content" model has been elusive. Could it be--perish the thought--that newspapers really aren't publishing much of anything that a typical reader is willing to pay for?

5:10 AM  
Anonymous JeffH said...

Thanks for the terrific post.
A better use of our Content Cops might be sending them out any time a local television or radio person cites a story from the newspaper without attribution.
Then, months down the road, these guys will be spitting out the local newspaper name every couple of minutes.
Like many other issues facing newspapers today, this would require restructuring the AP distribution model. Would be great to see more focus on that.

5:18 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Per the above comment from Rich Pearson at Attributor:

Yes, I am aware of the idea that publishers would like to make ad networks stop serving ads to sites that don’t pay for copyrighted content. This exercise in wishful thinking was discussed here.

But I can’t think of a single reason – other than a court order or an act of Congress – that would motivate any of the networks to act against their commercial interests.

I can’t think of a legal theory that would persuade a court to force a third party like an ad network to be the arbiter or enforcer in a dispute between Publisher A and Publisher B. Can anyone else?

Maybe Congress can be persuaded to amend the copyright laws to make a third party like an ad network responsible for enforcing a publisher’s rights. But I can’t see how that would work, either. Can anyone else?

6:02 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

We've got this all backwards. Instead of cracking down on people who take our content, we should make it easy for them, but with a twist. Set up a content access tool that lets them import our content but includes an ad tag that is flagged as being theirs. Then give them a share of the revenue from the ads that we run on their site. The revenue would encourage them to include the tag, and we would be creating our own viral network. We might even make some money.

6:43 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I agree that legislation to compel the ad networks to intercede is not doable. What may be possible - make it illegal to sponsor the hijacked content. Penalties for the ad network and/or the advertiser if their ads are attached to stolen content.

Placing an ad on stolen content is like hiring an illegal alien.

7:22 AM  
Anonymous Mike ODonnell said...

Bravo to anonymous 1 about content publishers having it backward. The solution he suggests is already available for all AP-hosted content and on hundreds of other news sites. For example, visit this article and click on "Post":

AP is not currently sharing the ad revenue with sites that want to instantly post their articles for free, but could do so if they wanted to.

In defense of systems like Attributor(iCopyright has its own called Discovery), the objective is not always to extract payment. It is to get sites to add the publisher's copyright notice and a link back to the publisher's site. Too many sites scrape and republish without giving proper credit or links. That can hurt the publisher's SEO ranking.

Using the "Content Cop" technology to identify then notice sites to post properly AND giving them a revenue-sharing incentive is a good strategy for all.

9:33 AM  
Blogger Bruce Wood said...

The easiest way to stop aggregators from using newspapers' copyrighted content is to put most of it behind a pay wall. If the content is exclusive, well written and about a subject of interest then the reader will pay for it. Generally aggregators do not use content behind pay walls so there is no wasted time and effort chasing them to get paid. If newspapers don't start doing this soon, there won't be any content for the aggregators to "borrow". I pay for the Wall Street Journal and it's worth every penny.

11:56 AM  
Anonymous Bruce Whitfield (US) said...

In response to

I can’t think of a legal theory that would persuade a court to force a third party like an ad network to be the arbiter or enforcer in a dispute between Publisher A and Publisher B. Can anyone else?Google already removes it's ads and terminates AdSense accounts due to copyright infringement Google also has a counter-notification mechanism in place to handle disputes. The DMCA covers all this. Seems simple enough and does not require any additional legal theory.

3:10 PM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Per the above comment, Google says it will remove ads after the fact when it receives proper notice of an alleged copyright violation.

However, publishers, as I understand it, want ads blocked proactively and in advance from offending sites. This is the idea that I find hard to justify.

As discussed in the post, publishers today can police the web and send notices to Google or other ad services for each violation. My point is that the exercise would seem to be more costly and cumbersome than it may be worth.

3:29 PM  

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