Thursday, April 16, 2009

I have seen the content pirate and he is us

At the risk of being branded a plagiarist, allow me to paraphrase the comic strip character Pogo, who said, "I have seen the enemy and he is us." In the heated battle that is going on today between news publishers, search engines and bloggers over the use (or misuse) of publisher content, let me say that, "I have seen the content pirate and he is us!"

Dean Singleton, chairman of the AP board and CEO of MediaNews Group, recently said, “I think our industry has been very timid about protecting our content, probably because we've done so well in the past few years that we didn't recognize that misappropriation is as serious an issue as it is. As we're now relooking at business models, it's become clear that we must protect the rights of our content. ... We perhaps have been timid about enforcing [those rights]. No more. We own the content but we've let those who spend very little, if any, get the most advantage from it.”

Mr. Singleton was expressing the frustration felt by many publishers (some of them our clients) who believe they create all the content, but Google and other aggregators, including millions of bloggers, reap most of the benefits. There's some truth to that, but I don't think Google or the blogosphere are the ultimate enemy. I think the publishing industry has a solid legal argument that the headlines and "snippets" used by search engines and blogs are NOT covered by fair use. If you are in the business of supplying headlines and snippets and that is what others are copying and monetizing at your expense, then copyright applies. It certainly applies if millions of people can click the "Cached" link that appears next to the snippet to read the full article without ever having to visit the publisher's site. If you are a photographer and someone takes parts of your photos, i.e., snippets, and sells them to others, or monetizes them with ads, or creates derivative works with them, you will likely insist that your copyrights have been infringed. If they are taking the entire photo, then you will likely rush to the court house because that's a slam dunk case of infringement.

That said, the "snippet" battle with Google is a red herring that masks the larger problem of content piracy and why publishers are failing to monetize their works. I truly believe that the snippet battle will be resolved amicably between the publishers and the search engines. They need each other. The digital content ecosystem can not thrive without good content and easy ways to find that content. Ken Doctor wrote an excellent piece for that suggests a possible resolution: A Solution To The Newspaper Industry’s Battle With Google

The bigger problem, in my view, is the dirty little secret that no one wants to talk about and no one, except iCopyright (pat on back), is trying to address. The vast majority of content that is pirated and used for commercial purposes -- with no attribution, links, or compensation to the publisher -- is perpetrated by millions of people everyday in the performance of their jobs.

Most people would not accept stolen goods from a friend. Most employers would not buy software and load it on multiple computers, unless they had a site license to do so. But that is exactly what is going on with publisher content. I get two or three emails a day from well meaning colleaques containing full articles that were cut-and-pasted from sites like CNN and The New York Times. I see full articles posted on blogs and company web sites that I know were shamelessly "borrowed" from the creators. When asked, most will innocently say that the content was passed to them by someone else and they did not think to ask if it was okay to copy it, email it, or post it. The vast majority of pirated content that is "consumed" for commercial purposes is not coming from the search engines or even scraped from publisher websites. It is coming from people who got it from other people, who got it from who knows where.

Outsell, Inc. wrote a research report several years ago entitled, The Copyright Pandemic. Their research estimated 56 billion documents (articles, photos) circulated each year without permission, much of it for commercial purposes. I'll bet publishers wished they had $1 for every one of those copied and shared documents. Publishers can look at Google as the source of their failing empires, but it is "us" that is causing their downfall. What's the solution? Glad you asked!

The solution is a simple matter of tagging each and every piece of content with a unique identifier that states what rights the sender or poster has. The tag is part of the publisher's copyright notice which accompanies each piece of content, whether an article, image, video, or music file. Whenever anyone hands me a copy of an article, or emails me an article, or my webmaster posts an article on our website, the first thing I do is look at the copyright notice and tag to verify that they have the rights to be using it and sharing it with me. If there is no copyright notice attached and no proof-of-license to make copies, post, or email, I delete it. I wouldn't drive a car without a valid license plate. Why would I put my company and my reputation at risk by using copyrighted content without the owner's expressed permission? The enemy is us and we would not be pirates if everyone could see that we were. Publishers and creators could again enjoy the fruits of their labor.

To learn more about this "License Verification Tag" download this 2-page overview:
The iCopyright Platform: A Virtuous Circle for Content Monetization

~Mike O'Donnell

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