Linksharing, double-dipping and the cost of copyright

When I buy a newspaper, I pay the cost of the paper and then I am entitled to do with it what I want. Other than copying it word for word and trying to pass it off as my own, I can read it, use it to line my cat’s litter tray or … give it to someone else.

If I choose to give my paper to someone else I don’t charge them for reading it, because after all I have already paid the price of the paper, and thus should end the transaction.

But in the grip of a struggling print industry it seems that the UK Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA) want to change that. They created a licensing system designed to cash in on the agencies which collate the information gathered from their newspapers (such as media monitoring companies and PR agencies) as well as charging the end users (clients) who are paying for that information to be collated.

By introducing licenses that tax end users for receiving content, much of which is already free to access on the internet, they are in effect double dipping. Meltwater, a media monitoring company, didn’t like that. While agreeing in principle to pay the license as a company they challenged the reasonableness of also charging the, in effect, secondary user. And the body which represents the PR industry in the UK, the PRCA, agreed. Together they took the issue to the Copyright Tribunal in 2009.

I interviewed Meltwater’s CEO, Jorn Lyseggen, late last year for a magazine article. I asked him then why Meltwater was pursuing the cause when so many other media monitoring companies had simply buckled and paid the fees. He said,

“I sympathise with the newspaper industry’s attempt to monetise their online content, but we cannot accept unjust attempts to tax our clients for receiving hyper-links. …Meltwater is fighting for a principle that will affect countless online businesses. We believe links do not represent a breach of copyright.”

He then went on to speak about how the internet had changed the media landscape dramatically and how the legal profession still had to catch up. And it seems that is still true. Meltwater and the PRCA released this information on today’s Court of Appeal ruling:

“We believe that the Courts have to date avoided ruling on some of the more challenging elements of the copyright law where technology is evolving faster than the law.This latest verdict, although more positive for us, is a clear sign that UK copyright law is in need of a refresh to bring it into line with modern day Internet usage.

In particular, we believe the judgments carry the implication that simply the browsing of copyright protected content made freely available on the Internet will infringe copyright if it is read without a rightsholder licence.” 

But will they catch up in time?

The Copyright Tribunal will hear and determine a ruling on the issue in September 2011. Putting it simply, if the judgement is upheld our rights as net-citizens to share articles and news reports will be seriously jeopardized. As I have explained before the issue is very clear, if you link-share and can be determined to be doing it for gain you will be in breach of copyright.

The reality is, if you tweet relevant article links from your business Twitter account or post a news story of interest to your fans on your Facebook business page you will in all likelihood be construed as  violating a copyright law; one that, unlike a sneaky burn of that favourite itunes song to a cd, is very, very traceable.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this ruling.

Link-sharing is the fundamental cornerstone of the internet.

As Professor Hargreaves states in his UK government sponsored inquiry into digital copyright issues:

“Copying should be lawful where it is for private purposes, or does not damage the underlying aims of copyright…”

Yes: or does not damage the underlying aims of copyright.

Receiving a link to read should not damage the aim of copyright laws which were created to protect the integrity and earnings of the author/creator.

As long as I am not plagiarizing the newspaper that I bought, I should be able to share it with anyone I choose. I paid for it once, I shouldn’t have to pay for it twice.

If the Copyright Tribunal don’t get this ruling right in September it looks like the NLA are going to get their way.

And their way is to make us all pay.

Very, very dearly.


This post was first published July 2011:

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