These issues don’t really affect private internet users do they?
Right now, not directly. But if a news organisation charges a social network like Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn an amount to cover its members posting links freely to each other, how are social networks going to recoup those costs? It radically increases the pressure to turn themselves into paid sites – and it is you, the consumer, who pays.
And if a social networking site has to choose which media organisation it will do deals with because it can’t afford to deal with all of them – or won’t deal with anyone in this way on a matter of principle – then it will curtail an individual’s ability to share views on the news through networks. That is a direct threat to the democratic exchange of ideas and opinions.
But if a business is making commercial use of a news website, surely they should pay for it?
No that doesn’t follow. If every use of a news website in a business needed to be paid for, that would be absurd.
When an individual clicks a link and reads something online, when are they acting in a commercial capacity, as opposed to a private capacity? Is it when they happen upon an article relevant to their business? Is it when they forward a link to that article to a colleague? Is it when they bookmark the article in their web browser? What if they are a freelancer, or work from home on a regular basis?
Distinguishing use of web links that is commercial, from use of the same web links that are not commercial, can be like arguing how many angels sit on the head of a pin.
In any event, commercial or personal, the freedom to read the web page you see when you click a link, is critical to society and the economy. Without that freedom, you would be at arbitrary risk of committing an offence by just clicking a link. That would be absurd and almost laughable, were it not that there is a creeping climate of fear that is allowing media owners to get away with targeting organisations for cash on this basis.
That creeping climate of fear risks undermining the freedom to use the Internet – no more no less – and must be stopped in its tracks.
The question is why newspapers in particular are making this online ‘land grab’ to control linking when they already have their own territory that is respected by one and all. This is online territorial expansion by old economy interests that is totally against the interests of the new global economy – they want to occupy parts of the internet that is common land.
Aren't aggregators who charge their clients making use of newspapers' content?
There is a lot of data on the web that is freely available, including those on newspaper websites. People willingly pay for the service of finding only those web pages relevant to them. Subscribers are not paying for the articles - which are not replicated for viewing - but for the service of finding them and signposting them. If the signposting - that is the link - leads to a pay wall, any website can then charge anyone to view the full content. That is their privilege.
Isn’t this campaign just a defensive measure to stop paying newspapers what they are due?
No, it is about defending a reasonable and critical boundary between what media owners can and should be free to charge for, and what they cannot charge for. Newspapers can and do sell their online content through subscriptions and syndication. They earn revenues through print and online advertising and sponsorship. Those are legitimate means of income generation.
What is happening now is an abuse of economic power, built up in the old pre-internet economy, against new economy businesses and practices that build on the freedoms that the new economy brings.
It is not legitimate to levy a charge on anyone for simply citing a headline or book title, and pointing the reader or internet user in the direction of the full article or book, or clicking a link in the course of one’s business – a freedom which newspapers and their staff themselves rely on. If newspapers set up effective pay walls, then search engines simply act as marketing and sales departments for their online content. (It could be argued that newspapers should be paying search engines for generating traffic to newspaper sites, especially since newspaper sites earn revenues from advertising.)
It is worth noting that the continuing growth of print media alongside online media in the dynamic markets of the Asia Pacific, and in Switzerland, a mature media market, shows that the issue of newspapers feeling the pressure of dwindling market share and revenues in the UK has its roots in our particular market for print newspapers.
Quite simply, supply is outstripping demand. The quick emergence and equally quick demise of the London free sheets, and the fact that the London Standard has been forced by market pressures to become a free sheet, is just one symptom of this situation. There are now many newspapers selling to a population that is online-savvy. The old-economy newspapers are trying to turn the tide, like King Canute, by levying a tax on the growth sectors of the economy against the free market principles they champion themselves.
The fact that the major newspaper groups are now on the hunt for organisations they can charge for linking to their websites – after deciding to make their content freely available on the internet – is a symptom of the adaptation they have failed to make, a failure they now want us all to subsidise.
Who actually own links?
That’s like asking who owned the Silk Road. The answer must be no one, and everyone who uses it while they are using it. All economies depend on free and easy transit of goods without undue taxes at every way station – and on the information superhighway it is no different. The Silk Road passed through many different countries and cultures, and actually encompassed alternative routes along the way, just like links leading to a particular website or web page can be posted on many different platforms, and re-posted many times over.
The World Wide Web is a unique creation in one sense, but it has ancient antecedents. It doesn’t belong to any one person or organisation. It can only exist as one big collaborative network. In the same way that the World Wide Web belongs to no-one and to everyone, links – the signposts put up by individual users of the World Wide Web to guide others on their way – must belong to no one, and to everyone.
Which media owners are trying to undermine the right to link?
The owners of The Times and The Sun (News International), The Guardian (Guardian News and Media), the Daily Mail (Associated Newspapers), the Daily Mirror (Trinity Mirror), The Daily Telegraph (Telegraph Group), The Independent (Independent News & Media), the Daily Express (Northern & Shell) and the Financial Times (Financial Times Group), along with Northcliffe Media, Johnston Press plc and many others.
They are acting either independently (in the case of News International), or collectively through The Newspaper Licensing Agency Limited (the NLA), a revenue collection company they established for themselves in 1996 to sell licences to organisations so that they may "take legal copies of newspaper articles". At the time this revenue-generating extension of their business was set up, the issue that bothered the newspapers was photocopying. They successfully argued that a photocopy was a direct reproduction of content made by a third party - and outside their ability to control directly.
But with the internet, the model is quite different. Pages of websites, when accessed, are copied to the user's computer by the website, not by a third party. The website retains full control over the delivery of the copies of any web page. The NLA’s licensing function would therefore no longer seem necessary.
Nevertheless, today online content is provided not only by newspapers but by other types of news organisations. These include UK as well as non-UK publishers, broadcasters, bloggers, charities, NGOs and others. Many offer free online news, and it is under pressure from these non-newspaper competitors that newspaper incomes have suffered (see above).
Newspapers are reluctant to switch to subscription models, for fear of losing traffic and advertising revenue. They are also reluctant to accept the new market reality of free open-access news, and to adapt their products to target new niches.
This explains why newspapers and the NLA are attempting to requisition the link for their own revenue-generating ends – despite newspapers retaining full control of the copying of their web pages that occurs during the linking process.
Is the Newspaper Licensing Agency an arm of government or a regulator?
No. It is a private limited company incorporated in December 1994 as Newspaper Licensing Limited. It changed its name to The Newspaper Licensing Agency Limited in June 1995.
It has no legal status other than as a private limited company. Its power, accorded to it by its constituent funders – mostly the print media organisations – is to collect revenues on their behalf through schemes for licensing the copying of content under copyright.
The right to license literary intellectual property works is not in question to the extent that the works enjoy the protection of copyright. However, copyright does not confer on the owner an absolute right to the exclusive use of any literary work except with the owner's permission. The Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 provides a number of statutory freedoms to use literary works. The copyright owner cannot make out a claim for copyright infringement if the use is within the scope of any of the freedoms. Such freedoms include reproducing insubstantial excerpts and reporting current events.
In any event, circulating a link to a newspaper article does not reproduce the actual content but merely signposts the route to a particular item of current affairs on another site. It is therefore widely accepted that linking falls outside the scope of copyright protection and so should not form part of the revenue collection targets of The Newspaper Licensing Agency Limited.