Journalism and Intellectual Property in the Internet Era

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By Clare Finnegan

Although often unrecognized, the end of April celebrates two days dedicated to remembering intellectual property rights, International Copyright Day (also referred to as World Book and Copyright Day) on April 23rd and World Intellectual Property Day on April 26th. With both of these just passed, the current issues facing content consumers and producers deserve a second look.

There are two general distinctions in the world of counterfeiting and piracy: the theft of tangible goods and the theft of digital products. The difference between the two is not always as clear as one might expect; depending on whether an mp3 has been downloaded to a cd, it could be considered tangible or digital. People (in the US at least) tend to relate infringement of the former with Canal Street in Chinatown and of the latter with college campuses, Pirate Bay, and the now partially-defunct, file sharing platform Limewire. One name that that most don’t associate with copyright infringement is Google; despite the often missed connection, Google epitomizes the evolving conflict between digital content producers and consumers.

As a millennial with only a vague recollection of a time when Google was not the premier search engine, I share a generational appreciation for the company with the unofficial motto ‘Don’t be evil’. As an editor and researcher, Google has revolutionized fact checking with Google Books and, thanks to Google Scholar, made searching by citation infinitely easier. However, despite the many advantages of Google’s consumer content, its expansion beyond site indexing has had mixed effects within the journalism industry.

The rise of the internet has heralded the development of a new generation of content consumers, one that believes information should be accurate, available, and (in most instances) free. Traditional content creators have found it particularly difficult to adapt their business model to the online environment. Globally, journalists have had to fight to retain control of their creative content without alienating a consumer base that values responsible journalism only if it is free or deeply discounted.

The dominant position of Google (which controls approximately 90 percent of various European countries’ search-engine markets and 67 percent of the U.S. market) has forced online publishers to rely heavily on Google to direct search engine traffic to their websites. This dependant relationship, along with the development of Google News, has caused financial consternation throughout the publishing world.

Google News is a global news aggregator that provides consumers with a brief “snippet” that summarizes the content of a particular article. For the busy consumer with no time to do more than scan the headlines, Google News serves as a powerful tool for accessing the critical essence of current events. While consumers benefit from this capsulation, however, its existence is a source of alarm for content producers. Around 44 percent of users do not ‘click through’ to the original news source, which results in a serious loss of advertising revenue for online journalists. Moreover, the lack of a significant search engine competitor limits the bargaining power of content creators and precludes journalists from credibly threatening to opt out of Google’s services.

From the perspective of journalists, Google unfairly profits from the content of online publishers because Google receives significant advertising revenue generated from journalistic content searches. To remedy this situation, journalists claim that Google should share some of its advertising profits with content creators. Of course, Google disagrees. In desperation, some publishers have turned to legal action.

Litigation, however, is fraught with financial hazards for content providers. As the 2011 settlement of a Belgium newspaper suit against Google demonstrated, successful litigation does not guarantee better business prospects. The court ruled that Google News did not constitute “fair use” of intellectual property. In compliance with the court’s orders, Google removed the suing newspapers from all of its services, effectively rendering the same newspapers unreachable by most consumers. In addition to severe business repercussions, publishers pursuing legal action risk becoming social pariahs, much like their record label counterparts.

The legal arena is not the only area in which news providers have stumbled in the digital era. In the scramble to go digital, many publishers offered free online content, a precedent that most providers now want to reverse. Convincing consumers to pay for content that was once free, however, has been challenging. The online paywall of the New York Times actually may be the most effective approach for these late adopters. Although much derided in its initial debut due to the ease of circumvention, the paywall should actually be praised as a revolutionary example of price discrimination. By including easily accessible backdoors, the New York Times has managed to avoid negative backlash from consumers accustomed to free access. At the same time the newspaper has been able to generate increased subscription revenue, both digital and print.

The journalism industry has not yet resolved the digital dilemma of how to provide accurate and reliable content in a profitable manner. Google has created an online portal that provides an enhanced consumer experience; the journalism industry should embrace a similar consumer-orientated approach. Innovation, rather than legal action, is the answer to consumer support for intellectual property control.

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Clare is a master’s candidate at the Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations where she specializes in International Economics and Development. She is currently a Senior Editor and is an incoming Deputy-Editor-in-Chief for the Journal.