Linking to your site is copyright infringement?

In an article on paidContent, I read a group of Irish newspapers is trying to convince their government that links should be paid for. If I link to a page on your site, I should pay you for the link. Peculiar or not?

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To the publishing world the last decade has been a very difficult one. No matter if you’re active in the music, film or “information” business, the odds are that digital consumers have eroded your income stream. Because digital content is very easy to duplicate without quality loss, it’s also very easy to take it away (or rather: copy it) and reuse it for your own purposes. The last couple of years have seen more variations on this theme in the form of curation and aggregation.

Worst yet, in the case of information providers such as the average newspaper, some members of the blogging community publish “their own” great content by scraping content off a site and dump that on their own blog, often without any credits at all. And then there are the “headlines” or “clipping” services that offer complete summaries of newspaper stories. (Read the Final Decision of a Copyright Tribunal (PDF) and a commented version.

In the legal case ruling, the fact the defendant, Meltwater, was charging for the summaries to its audience, has undoubtedly been reason for Associated Press to sue them as well.

The old world vs. the new

There are two views that rule the discussion whether content should roam free. There’s the largely Anglo-Saxon opinion that it should, that the Internet represents a whole new “business model”, and that content providers should adapt. (Read: PressThink, BuzzMachine and GeorgeBrock.

The other view is what I would like to call the “continental” or “old-European” view which dictates that nothing is free, not even the air you breathe (which reflects badly into the taxes Europeans pay). (Read Germany’s protection against aggregators, and for a more balanced view The Register and Tech Week Europe).

Let me start with the more Anglo-Saxon (aka modern) view that content vendors should adapt to the new business model the Internet is supposed to force upon us. It’s hard to do, but it’s true that we can use Internet technology as a business enabler. However, in most cases businesses on the Internet thrive only when they use the technology as a sales front-end. And what sells well on the Web? Books, for example. Or shoes, or gadgets. Tangibles or your virginity.

Digital goods on the other hand are easily copied and created by people who previously had no access to the real-world equivalent. There are many people out there who, for one reason or another, are creating and distributing the same content for free that newspapers spit out.

In the buyer’s market the Internet is, nobody will pay for stuff they can find for free elsewhere.

Unless… Remember the “Law of attraction” video “The Secret” a couple of clever chaps created a couple of years back? We all know the “information” provided was ridiculous and not working, but the topic they covered allowed them to create mystery around their “product”. That mystery led people to believe they were selling something unique — as in secret information nobody else could offer — that would improve their life. A lot of people were willing to pay for that.

They used clever marketing. Perhaps that is something newspapers should think about too. Not selling snake oil, but creating something that’s truly unique.

Now, some say you can still adapt in a “normal way”, for example by running banner ads. Unfortunately, newspapers cost more than ads can generate in terms of income. Another often heard “solution” to the problem is that you need to create “communities” of users who will then be faithful to you, who will visit often, which in turn generates more traffic, which in turn cranks up your banner income. But in reality, banners are increasingly less a solution as their payout has dropped and keeps dropping dramatically.

Links are not content and therefore cannot be IP-protected, right?

While I agree any market should be regulated at least to keep offenders out who don’t play by the (unwritten) rules, I disagree with the “continental” (read: old European) view that we should stifle the freedom of the Internet with laws, statute law, rules, etc.

It most certainly is rubbish to lobby for legal definitions of copyright that would make it impossible to link to an article, even when the link includes a text snippet. The Irish Times, which seems not to be part of the group asking for this legal protection, offers a RSS feed on its pages. If you don’t want people to link to your pages, then don’t offer them a RSS feed in the first place, but if you do, RSS is a great way to control what they can publish as a teaser.

Furthermore, links are the blood vessels of the Web. It is incredibly stupid to kill free linking to your site as linking is the only thing that drives traffic to your site. If you want to earn money with that site, then links are absolutely necessary. If you don’t see that, or your “no profit panic” makes you attack linking, you don’t belong on this digital channel.

True, there are offenders. The scrapers and copycats. And those should be properly addressed. If it’s really content they are reproducing, which is hurting you wilfully, you can sue them under current intellectual property (IP) law, in any country (well, perhaps not in China). You can also take some technical measures. I have had to deal with these people myself. They just grab half of a story and then link to IT Enquirer for the rest.

Half to two thirds is a bit over the edge. What I do, is I search for their IP-address and block them if they don’t comply with my request to take down the story on their site or shorten it to a reasonable length. Easy as pie.

If you’re taking on others who link to your content without scraping your site — just taking the snippet we can all consider as an intro to your full story — then links should be regarded as footnotes. And when in legal history could you ever charge for footnotes?

Big data and other sources of income

If profit is a problem, perhaps it’s better to engage in what some large publishers are now doing: sell analysis of raw data. If you have access to any sort of data — preferably loads of it, as in “big data” — that has been collected over the years, you can sell the analysis of that data.

With big data, the challenge currently is in analysing and drawing conclusions out of it. This demands skills in programming, analysis knowledge and other intellectual goodies most bloggers and small publishers lack. Perhaps this is the paradigm shift newspapers need in order to survive.

Or sell eBooks or video trainings… There are possibilities for those who look, but it may require a thinking out-of-the-box or a good insight in how content monetisation works. If your product is no longer worth anything, then change the product?