Newspapers Are Running Out of Time to Solve the Problem of Content Theft

Say what you will about the RIAA. Ultimately, it made the trains run on time.

The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the U.S. music industry, has made many enemies in the Web world for its draconian approach to copyright. It killed Napster and has tracked down and snuffed out one peer-to-peer file-sharing service after another. It has also famously sued random college students for their file-sharing misdeeds, scaring the bejesus out of parents everywhere.

The Opportunity Costs of Stealing

All of which set things up perfectly for the iPod. Sure, college students (and everyone else) would prefer free songs to 99-cent songs, but considering the opportunity costs — possible lawsuits, nagging parents, file-sharing service providers forced to hide in caves, etc. — 99 cents suddenly sounded like a pretty good deal.

And so, while certainly the music industry has its challenges, at least more people are paying for music now than stealing it.

Which is something that can’t be said for the newspaper industry.

Newspapers have been struggling with content theft from the moment the word “blog” was coined 10 years ago. Unfortunately, until the last three or four years, they didn’t know they were struggling with it. Now that they do know, all they’ve really done to combat the threat of blogs is to create their own blogs.

Great! More content to steal!

Here’s a thought: the newspaper industry is basically responsible for the entire boom in blogging — arguably the biggest revolution in the news media in decades. It’s responsible because the vast majority of bloggers (with the exception of those who have professionalized and begun doing original reporting) write their posts based on the coverage of paid news staffs. Back when I started blogging in early 2005, it was common to see blog posts that consisted of entire stories from the New York Times or other papers, cut and pasted into the post — then with a little, “Gosh, isn’t that interesting?” thrown in at the end.

If newspapers complained, bloggers sneered condescendingly that the media bigshots “just didn’t get it.” Didn’t the newspapers understand that these blogs, by linking back to the source article, were sending traffic their way? Heck, they weren’t stealing content — they were doing the newspapers a favor!

And so we see, in 2009, that the newspaper industry is on the verge of collapse.

Slow on the Uptake

Look, I’m no apologist. I’m the first to admit that if the newspaper industry dies, it will be largely from self-inflicted wounds. But one of these wounds is that the industry has never found an effective way to defend its content against theft.

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that back in 2002, when I was vice president of corporate communications for the media company Belo Corp., I helped illustrate this fact — unintentionally, of course. You see, Belo’s attorneys had determined that the company had the right to prevent outside Web sites from linking to individual articles within its media sites — a practice known at the time as “deep linking.” I had the task of being the spokesperson for this argument.

Needless to say, we chalked that one up in the loss column.

Other media companies have had no better luck in protecting their content. And so now we have thousands of Web sites all reporting the same news — with only a small handful actually paying for the reportage that supports this entire infrastructure of information.

And that small handful — the newspapers — are running out of money, and out of time.

Tracking and Charging

I was inspired to scribble all this down because I read an op-ed piece in The Dallas Morning News on Sunday by John Chachas, managing director of Lazard, a financial advisory company. Chachas laid out his prescriptions for fixing the newspaper business — including this creative proposal for dealing with content theft:

Newspapers should be granted a finite (36-month) anti-trust law exemption to permit deployment of an industry-wide system to track and charge for re-use of their content. Whether that is accomplished through a “rights society” as with music publishers, or through the use of electronic watermarks, which could facilitate digitized tracking and usage charges, publishers cannot continue the practice of paying for the editorial staffs to source the news and then have it used for free by competing web aggregators.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But it made me wonder: Why is this idea appearing as an op-ed by a mergers-and-acquisitions consultant in 2009? Why hasn’t the newspaper business been lobbying to achieve this, or something like it, for years? Or at least, why isn’t it doing so today?

For all our sakes, let’s hope this great industry figures things out before it’s too late.

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