- Image via CrunchBase
So much of the talk about saving newspapers seems to miss the point: it’s not really important to save newspapers, but it’s really important to save news organizations. You can be a smart ass like Chris Andersen and talk about how much `news’ you get from Twitter, but for most important stuff that happens in the world, all of us get our news because some finite number of news organizations are committed to values like speed, accuracy and judgment, and pay talented and trained individuals to report on stories of significance and interest. As we all know, when people read those stories on the internet, the price they (or advertisers) pay is nowhere near enough to underwrite the cost of that talent.
One answer is that news organizations have to stop giving their product away on the internet, and lots of smart people are trying to figure out how to do that. But another is to prevent people from stealing it. There is a wonderful article in The Washington Post today by Ian Shapira, detailing how a feature he wrote for the Post was snatched by Gawker. Shapira details the hours he spent reporting and writing the article, although he does not discuss the months and years he invested in developing his talent, nor the months and years that his editors invested in learning their craft and nurturing people like Shapira. He does report that the writer from Gawker who ripped off the story spent about a half an hour doing it.
This is the sort of thing that must end, and it’s not too strong an idea to suggest that the way you end it is the same way you end (or try to end) armed robbery or Ponzi schemes or any other sort of theft: you outlaw it. Shapira reports on an effort to do just that:
“David Marburger is a First Amendment lawyer who, along with his economist brother Daniel, is stirring a minor controversy in the blogosphere with a proposal that might empower newspapers, or any news organization that spends the bulk of its budget on original reporting. They want to amend the copyright law so that it restores “unfair competition rights” — which once gave us the power to sue rivals if our stories were being pirated. That change would give news organizations rights that they could enforce in court if “parasitic” free-rider Web sites (the heavy excerpters) refused to bargain with them for a fee or a contract. Marburger said media outlets could seek an order requiring the free-rider to postpone its commercial use or even hand over some advertising revenue linked to the free-riding.”
Shapira says news organizations once had such protections, and that in 1918 the Associated Press was able to use the law against a rival wire service that had been stealing its stories. The law was abolished during the revision of the copyrightlaws in 1976 because it was that that it gave media organizations a “boundless monopoly” over the news of the day. Congress then dropped the exception. Clearly that threat no longer pertains.
For an interesting perspective on this, consider Charles Blow’s article about the music industry that appeared in The New York Times on Saturday. “According to data from the Recording Industry Association of America,” Blow writes, “since music sales peaked in 1999, the value of those sales, after adjusting for inflation, has dropped by more than half. At that rate, the industry could be decimated before Madonna’s 60th birthday. The speed at which this industry is coming undone is utterly breathtaking. First, piracy punched a big hole in it. Now music streaming — music available on demand over the Internet, free and legal — is poised to seal the deal.”
Yes, let’s recall the golden age of Napster, when it was considered cool to strike a blow against the sclerotic record companies. Yes, the internet was going to let young artists express themselves without the interference by the suits. Yes, artists were going to be able to keep more of what they earn instead of enriching their corporate masters. And yes, anybody could build an amazing music library for free just by sharing files–taking them from a pal, without paying the record company, or the artist, a cent.
Well, that’s worked out well. According to one study Blow cites, “of the 13 million songs for sale online last year, 10 million never got a single buyer and 80 percent of all revenue came from about 52,000 songs.” Meanwhile, “Apple is working with the four largest labels to seduce people into buying more digital albums.”
In other words, they’re trying to recreate the wheel. Meanwhile, fortunes were lost and stolen, jobs were lost, lives upset, and the culture impoverished, because people thought it was okay to let the record companies to get ripped off. And the same thing is happening with the news media. It’s time the freeloaders started paying. It’s time the thieves were run out of town.