Wednesday, December 02, 2009

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I am shocked, shocked to discover this sort of unethical behavior going on in this establishment. I wonder how much of this is done by automatic programs, and how much by individual choice. If the former, Google seems to be leading a crackdown on spiders by limiting to five the number of hits it will permit on each paper without registering. Ain't technology a wonderful thing? Hoocoodanode that automatic programs and algorythms would have such an economic impact.

6:15 AM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

Alan writes: "They, and they alone, long since forfeited the opportunity to take affirmative action to prevent the uncompensated propagation of their content on the Internet."

What if they found a way to 'propogate' their content without reliance on the Internet? Couldn't they then devise appropriate content rights mechanisms?

It seems to me that the answer is right under our collective noses. But like the Purloined Letter, no one can see it because it's in full view.

6:55 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

It gets worse when newspapers close their own bureaus and decide to rely on generic sources like wire services. Imagine, if you will a shopping mall full of clothing stores. Acme Shops has its own supplier and inventory not like the other stores. That makes it popular with customers who want more and better. But now it wants to charge customers to come into the store to shop and, brilliantly, simultaneously decides to stop using that expensive supplier and just use the same one all the other stores use. Looks great as a business plan: lower costs and higher predicted revenue. But we all know what will happen.

7:41 AM  
Anonymous Don Marti said...

You don't have to make a federal case out of it to get someone's copy of your story kicked out of Google. (News story copiers seem to be basically web spammers, looking for Google juice.) The DMCA takedown process is very straightforward, and involves sending one fax to Google. I have done this and have a boilerplate letter floating around if anyone wants it. The process looks as if it costs Google more than it costs you, so the more takedowns you send, the better of a job they'll do in keeping out the spam copies in the long run. (There is a "duplicate content penalty", so if you apply some basic Search Engine Optimization to the original copy of the story, that should work against the copiers, too.)

7:47 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Yes. DMCA is one route.. but I am seeing that many of these violators are not US. based so DMCA doesn't always apply.

We track the copies using a combination of internal and external tools. What is interesting is that many of the worst offenders are not automated but use cut-and-paste.. One large radio//tv/media conglomerate comes to mind that lift these almost daily from our sites, usually they at least back link.. but we're seeing more often that they just copy.

8:48 AM  
Anonymous Evelyn said...

"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" And now newspapers are left to twist slowly in the wind...

10:21 AM  
Blogger Eric Howe said...

Does Attributor have any credibility or is this just the usual moral panic that we've come to expect from the content industry?

Please remember that the content industry said that player pianos would destroy the world, audio cassettes would destroy the world, photocopiers would destroy the world, VCRs would destroy the world, DAT would destroy the world, CD burners would destroy the world, etc.

1:19 PM  
Anonymous Dhyana said...

Why haven't newspapers done more to put different content online than in print?

Online can perhaps be a place of deep local data, of photo galleries, of local video, of community discussion, with more encouragement that much of the available news is in print.

I can a system where either shorter stories are online to promote more print subscriptions or longer stories are online to counteract shrinking newsholes. Perhaps sidebars are online. Mimicking each other is lazy and dangerous to your organization's health. It's short-term ease. Newspapers need to think longer term.

The content of the two shouldn't be mirror images of each other. They have different strengths. Use them.

P.S. Is the obvious solution in full view alluded to in an earlier post e-mail delivery????

1:21 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

xxxThe 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
I think that is only half the story. The other half is that publishers clearly dismissed the idea their news content was worth anything. You had consultants pouring poison in the ears of publishers about how people buy newspapers just to feel they are part of the community, to clip the supermarket coupons, or they like one of the funnies. The trouble with the Internet, it was said, is that you can't carry your computer into the bathroom with you. So it was that after about 1993-94, the industry went into a period of contending its content was overrated, and not worth much. I believe this is going to be taught in business schools as the classic of business blunders.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

In reply to Eric:

I think that most people would assume that Attributor is a mouthpiece for the AP... or other dead-tree press

2:19 PM  
Anonymous T Heller said...

Dhyana asks: "P.S. Is the obvious solution in full view alluded to in an earlier post e-mail delivery????"

A: No. Now the questioning moves on to Kitty Carlisle....

7:00 PM  
Blogger Steve Outing said...

Allow me to correct a misconception apparent in some of these comments about Attributor and the Fair Use Consortium, which did the release Alan cites. Attributor is a neutral and valuable technology for publishers, but it can be used in "Murdochian" manner (aka, stupid) or intelligently. I covered this back in August on my blog after interviewing Attributor's CEO.

Alan is right that it's pointless and costly to try to fight all the infringement that the report cites. But use Attributor intelligently and it becomes a syndication marketing tool, if you're able to allow yourself to let your content go free, knowing that out there it will be bringing you revenue.

Some infringement instances should be stopped (without spending much money and utilizing automated means as much as possible; no lawyers!); some is so innocuous that's it's just dumb to waste any energy trying to stop it (e.g., a blogger who publishes a full article of yours); and some is a marketing opportunity because the infringing site is an acceptable place for your content to be re-used and become another revenue stream.

FYI, I have no financial interest in Attributor. My one connection is that I voluntarily reviewed and provided input on the Fair Use Consortium's "Content Syndication and Management Guidelines" (a sort of manifesto for a positive rather than punitive approach to content infringement) at

8:40 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As an owner of several weekly newspapers, I would only say that in our readers and communities do not face a surplus of free news. Indeed, we see our local franchise getting stronger as increasingly we are the only serious news-gathering outlet. Thus in no way does "information want to be free." Indeed, the true lesson to be derived is that information-gathering is costly, but that if you do it reasonably well and cost-effectively and if you protect your new-technology flanks, you can do fine. In that regard, we see no reason to give away all our information -- on-line or in print -- for free. We will instead tweak our current business model. That will include charging for content without regard to platform.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Information does want to be free is correct. But look up the whole quote. The rest of the sentence makes clear that money isn't the subject but access is. Think free press in the constitutional terms, not in the bankers.

7:02 AM  

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