Newspapers' decline over the past decade has been due in large part to forces beyond their control. But it has been hastened in many cases by the bullheaded, greedy, and nearsighted actions of the newspaper industry itself. For example:
I'm not sure that I have ever had occasion to link to an article in the Irish Times, the Irish Independent, or the Irish Daily Star. But if those newspapers and others in a national newspaper trade group have their way, I will have to pay them $400 if I ever do. Otherwise they could sue Slate for copyright infringement.
That's the bizarre, almost unbelievable takeaway from an op-ed by an outraged Irish lawyer in the Irish news website TheJournal.ie, who argues the newspaper group is essentially "seeking to outlaw the free exchange of ideas." He notes that the newspapers aren’t just seeking to crack down on sites that summarize or excerpt their articles. Their position is that publishing a hyperlink alone constitutes a violation of their copyright and is illegal without prior consent and payment.
If it sounds implausible that the newspaper industry could actually have adopted such a self-defeating stance, a statement published on the trade group’s website on Friday seems to affirm the lawyer’s claims. In short, National Newspapers of Ireland—which also represents UK-based papers such as the Daily Mirror and the Sun—is lobbying the government not to adopt any changes to copyright law that would make it clear that a link alone is not a copyright violation. “Our view of existing legislation is that the display and transmission of links does constitute an infringement of copyright,” the group writes. That’s in keeping with the position it first outlined in an official letter it wrote to the governmental copyright review committee in July.
This isn’t just abstract legal theory. According to the outraged lawyer, Simon McGarr, Irish newspapers have in fact been badgering Irish organizations that link to their sites with letters, emails, and phone calls demanding payment. McGarr says the newspapers are charging €300, or nearly $400, for the right to link just once to an article on an Irish newspaper website, with prices rising to €1,350 for more than 25 links. They’ve apparently gone so far as to hound an Irish charity called Women’s Aid for linking to positive news stories about their fundraising efforts.
In his op-ed in TheJournal.ie (which, I should clarify, is an online-only publication and not a member of the Irish newspaper trade group), McGarr points out that while news sites around the world have picked up on the controversy, no Irish newspaper so far has seen fit publish even a word about it. Here’s McGarr’s kicker:
You’ll notice that I haven’t linked to the Irish Independent, the Irish Times or the Irish Examiner in this article. That is because those newspapers sent legal letters to TheJournal.ie in 2011 telling them they were not allowed to link to articles on their sites.
That is a taste of the internet our newspapers would like to see imposed on everyone in Ireland.
I’ve emailed the newspaper group for further explanation of its stance, and will stand by to see if its lawyers try to charge me $400 for the link to their website that I included above.
UPDATE, Friday, 12:22 p.m.: The Irish Times has responded to the controversy by saying that it does not agree with its trade group's assertion that links are copyrightable and will not attempt to restrict websites' ability to link to its articles. “We have no problem at all with anybody linking directly to our articles," said the paper's online editor, Hugh Linehan. "However, The Irish Times takes issue with automated ‘scraping’, summarisation, and aggregation, of its content."
That means I can now link to the Irish Times, at least, without fear. Let's just hope my brief summary of their article doesn't cross the line.