I still subscribe to my local newspaper, the St. Paul Pioneer Press, in dead-tree form. One evening in early August, just before my vacation, as I perused the ever-shrinking opinion page, my eye ran across this headline: “MEDIA, OLD AND NEW ‘FREE-RIDING’ AND COPYRIGHT.” The authors, Dan and David Marburger, argue that news aggregation web sites are responsible for the destruction of the newspaper and must be stopped:
Practically anyone can start a website and get software that snags fresh online news from those who originate it. Website owners pluck the freshest, most interesting reports and quickly post condensed rewrites. That costs them little, and they then surround the rewrites with cut-rate ads. … Usually we all benefit when more efficient competitors enter the market and drive inefficient competitors out of business. But the Internet has not made “new media” publishers more efficient at gathering news than their print counterparts. It has made them more efficient at taking news from their print counterparts and using it to compete while the news is fresh.
I love the little linguistic touches here: snags, fresh, cut-rate ads, “new media” in scare quotes, and, of course, free-riding. There are more in the article, but ironically, I cannot link to the Marburgers’ full piece because it is behind an archives paywall. Fortunately, the Madison, Wisconsin newspaper ran essentially the same article. (Apparently, I am ruining the newspaper business by quoting, linking, and discussing in this fashion…)
I later learned from Techdirt that the Brothers Marburger have been on a little crusade on this subject. Their solution, no surprise, is to resuscitate the “hot news” rule under the 1918 INS v. AP decision. That would allow newspapers to prevent others from linking to their original reporting content. (Technical detail for lawyers: There has been some confusion about exactly what the Marburgers support. The op-ed proposes lifting federal copyright law’s preemption of state unfair competition and unjust enrichment claims. They assume, I think correctly, that this would open the door to INS-style claims. I am, just responding to what they wrote.).
In their op-ed, they seemed unconcerned about the way this would devastate fair use and shut down all the vibrant discussion in the blogosphere. But since no less an eminence than Richard Posner has mused along the same lines, this strikes me as an idea to which a forceful and rapid response is necessary. As more papers begin to fold, there may be a sentimental rush to impose some kind of radical solution like this. I am very sad and worried about the threat to journalism too, but this certainly is a cure worse than the disease.
So I did what any blogging law professor does in response: I wrote a “Taking Exception” reply for the Opinion page. They ran it, but of course it is behind that paywall too. So I’ve reprinted it below. (Does that make me a parasite?) I talk a little about the law in very general terms (even simplistic, you might say), but I also try to respond to their panicked rewrite of journalism history:
In their argument for a sweeping and unwise expansion of copyright law to protect newspapers from online “free riders,” David and Dan Marburger make several unjustified assumptions. I understand and share their concern that competition from digital sources may cut ad revenue for traditional outlets. But they seem to blame the whole problem on web sites like Newser.com or the Huffington Post that link to stories in many newspapers. This diagnosis is flawed, and their proposal would be a disastrous limit on free speech.
For starters, they ignore all the other long-term challenges facing newspapers, including changing reading habits, the arrival of 24-hour cable news, poor labor relations, and the movement of readers from traditional old cities to the suburbs and the Sun Belt. As television news matured in the mid-20th century, numerous dailies nationwide folded or merged (New York City went from eight to three), yet the authors baldly and incorrectly state that broadcast news did not depress newspaper circulation.
In light of this history, it is comical to blame aggregation web sites or blogs for all newspapers’ current woes. Copyright law already forbids reprinting the whole article or anything close to it. Usually, sites adhere to copyright’s fair use doctrine by posting only short blurbs and hyperlinks that highlight newspaper reports. Many readers will learn of stories they never would have found, and follow those links to the original publication. Anyone satisfied with just these little blurbs was never going to buy a regular newspaper subscription anyhow.
The Marburgers’ dangerous proposal would expand copyright and related unfair competition law to ban web sites (and presumably anyone else) from saying “The Daily Bugle ran a story this morning about the Mayor’s new budget” and quoting a paragraph of the article. Contrary to the authors’ assertions, a 1918 Supreme Court case about the Associated Press did allow news agencies to claim unacceptable monopolies over the facts they reported. Congress wisely abolished such special rights for media companies in 1976. Bringing them back would destroy the vibrant discussion found every day on countless blogs. (And perversely, it might prevent other traditional newspapers from giving credit to the original scoop when they write follow-up stories!)
Like the record industry, some newspaper publishers want to reshape copyright law so they can keep doing business exactly the same way, despite seismic societal and technological changes happening all around them. Special exclusive rights for media conglomerates will impoverish public discourse, and they won’t work anyhow.