The Copyright Nazis’ Latest Venue: Newspapers

Rupert Murdoch predicted this week that “the current days of the internet will soon be over.” As dead tree newspapers’ readership dwindles and Craigslist destroys the traditional advertising market, newspapers will increasingly try to capture value by charging for online content. The Murdoch papers, he said, were “already looking at that.”

Perhaps not coincidentally, John Kerry yesterday chaired hearings on the future of the newspaper industry. Representatives of several major newspapers and media chains called for an “exception” to antitrust laws that would allow the newspaper industry to agree on a common policy on establishing subscriber walls and charging for content, and form a united front against online content aggregators.

The sole voices of reason, Arianna Huffington of HuffingtonPost and Marissa Mayer of Google, warned that the industry would be shooting itself in the foot.

Kerry lamented the growing inability of newspapers to realize value from their “intellectual property” [sic] and expressed his desire to somehow enable them to prevent free access to their content without at the same time destroying the “openness” of the Internet. That’s a bit like wishing to eat meat without killing any animals. The proprietary content industry is barely able to make money even with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, so to make their business model viable would require an intrusive surveillance state on the scale portrayed in Richard Stallman’s “The Right to Read.”

Now, I recognize that there’s a problem. As traditional journalists never tire of pointing out, most of the content linked by bloggers and news aggregator sites was originally generated by old-fashioned shoe leather reporters. And those people have to eat.

But if what reporters do is essential, the same doesn’t necessarily go for traditional newspapers. News websites and bloggers, arguably, do a better job than traditional newspapers at aggregating the content generated by reporters. They do what journalists should do, and did do before the Lippmann model of “professional objectivity” turned journalism into a form of stenography: they have independent recourse to the realm of verifiable fact, and evaluate all the “he said, she said” statements of politicians and PR flacks in light of it.

In any case, regardless of whether the reporters are working for old-line newspapers or directly for online news aggregators, developing a business model by which they can be reimbursed for their work in an open-source world will be a real challenge. Crowdsourcing and reader-supported gift economies are one possibility. Sharing online advertising revenue to pay reporters for the “first sale” of their content is another. Supporting the reporters would probably cost a lot less if they were paid directly by the end-users at the aggregation sites without having to support the useless eaters in the corporate offices as well.

As Huffington said, “The discussion needs to move from ‘How do we save newspapers?’ to ‘How do we strengthen journalism? — via whatever platform it is delivered.’”

But the problem didn’t start with the Internet. Despite all the bathos about the poor content generators having to eat and all, dead tree newspapers have been downsizing traditional investigative reporters for decades now. It costs a lot more money to dig around and investigate the powerful than it does to run stories about JonBenet Ramsey, Shaundra Levy or Lacy Peterson. It’s more costly in terms of potential lawsuits and lost advertising revenue as well, compared to simply sending someone to the White House press pool to write down talking points from the guy behind the podium. Close to half of newspaper content is generated by press conferences and news releases from government and corporate PR departments–and that’s been true since long before the Internet.

So one way to support genuine investigative journalism might be to stop paying people to write down talking points in person, when the same thing can be achieved almost as effectively by cutting and pasting the talking points directly from the White House website.

And the Copyright Nazis’ proposed solution, of putting online content under lockdown behind a paid subscription wall, most definitely will not work.

All that’s necessary to circumvent such walls is one subscriber who knows how to cut and paste text into a blog post or an email to a discussion group, and the content is available for free online by a simple Google search. What’s more, the authoritarianism of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act is a paper tiger, in an age of strong encryption and bittorrent.

In the offensive-defensive technological arms race between the corporate state’s attempts to keep proprietary content under lockdown, and free people who want to freely distribute information, the latter will always be a step ahead.

Business models that depend on proprietary content are simply becoming untenable for technological reasons, and all the horses and men of the RIAA and MPAA together can’t put them together again.

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