Ripping off newspaper websites shortchanges democracy

There’s a feast raging on the Internet. Websites and bloggers are helping themselves to huge servings of whatever newspapers offer online.

People who run content-starved outlets steal articles from newspapers’ websites and post them on their own sites, without payment.

Who cares, you might say. Most newspapers post all their articles on their websites, free for anyone to read, whether they’ve got a subscription or not.

But many newspapers definitely care, because they make money when people visit their websites to read articles. Web advertisements are an increasingly important part of newspapers’ shrinking revenue stream.

When an entire article is copied from a newspaper’s website and posted on another website, fewer people go to the newspaper’s website to view the original article, and the paper makes less money.

Some newspapers are trying to protect their articles from being stolen. They’re trying to develop clearer “fair-use” policies, specifying for example how much of an article can be copied by a blog or website without violating the newspaper’s copyright.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has gone further. Its parent company, Stephens Media, has helped grubstake a law firm called Righthaven, which is suing Internet entities that post articles from the paper without proper authorization.

Righthaven buys the copyright to a specific newspaper article and then sues the website or blog that posts all or even part of it, typically for $150,000 and the rights to the domain name of website that allegedly commits the offense. Most of the approximately 200 lawsuits filed against organizations, ranging from the Democratic Party of Nevada to GOP Senate candidate Sharron Angle, have been settled out of court.

In December, on behalf of MediaNews, owner of The Denver Post, Righthaven sued the Drudge Report for allegedly publishing The Post’s content in violation of copyright law.

Critics, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation, say Righthaven is abusing copyright law by buying copyrights to articles it will never use and by demanding excessive damages, particularly from small-time bloggers who can’t afford to defend themselves.

Critics also don’t like Righthaven’s tactic of filing lawsuits without sending a warning letter first. These warnings, referred to as “takedown” or “cease-and-desist” letters, would give a website owner the chance to remove the offending content to avoid a lawsuit.

Courts in Nevada are sorting out the complexities of whether a website’s copying of a newspaper article–even if it’s used in its entirety and deprives a newspaper of potential revenue–can be justified under “fair-use” doctrine. Critics say the doctrine is more complicated than the Righthaven legal briefs would have you believe.

These critics have a point, but in the bigger picture, the newspaper industry’s cause is just.

The Righthaven approach, imperfect as it is, gets to the heart of one of the most important questions in journalism: How do newspapers protect online content?

Organizations shouldn’t post entire news stories on their websites, and bloggers shouldn’t reproduce newspaper articles in their online diaries.

Here’s why: News articles are written by journalists, who need to be paid. And most of their salaries come from advertisements. (There are exceptions of course, including OtherWords, the non-profit editorial service that happens to be distributing my op-ed to newspapers and new media.)

Newspapers’ advertising revenue has tanked in recent years. For journalism to survive, newspaper websites must sell more ads.

The routine looting and scattering of a publication’s website content across the blogosphere, where newspapers have no prayer reaping any profit, amounts to one more nail in the coffin of journalism. Advertising dollars will then flow to any online outfit that posts stolen news stories.

That’s not only unfair, but it’s bad for our democracy. We need journalists to play a watchdog role now more than ever.

Sure, Righthaven is unseemly in the way it’s suing people, including “little” people. But if you have a better idea on how newspapers should safeguard their online content, lay it on me.

A former media critic for the Rocky Mountain News, Jason Salzman is board chair of Rocky Mountain Media Watch and author of Making the News: A Guide for Activists and Nonprofits.

This column was originally distributed by the OtherWords syndicate.

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