Two new contributions on how to save the news from the threat of Free on the internet: Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker article and Richard Posner’s blog post of last week. Matthew Yglesias takes Posner to task for this apparently ill-thought-out idea:
Expanding copyright law to bar online access to copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, or to bar linking to or paraphrasing copyrighted materials without the copyright holder’s consent, might be necessary to keep free riding on content financed by online newspapers…
In my years of blogging, I have never once heard the author of an article or the editor of a publication complain to me about having linked to an article. By contrast, on a daily basis authors and editors ask me to link to their articles… The Posner proposal would make it illegal for me to debate the merits of Posner’s argument without first securing Posner’s specific approval. Online dialogue about political topics would grind to a halt. It would become impossible to review movies, recommend TV shows, praise songs, etc.
What I find flabbergasting is how few people seem to turn first to the obvious solution worked out for these kinds of situations about 80 years ago by the music writing industry in response to the advent of recorded music and “free” content on the radio, viz., compulsory licensing. Yglesias is absolutely right that requiring permission to link or paraphrase content is completely unworkable. The obvious solution would seem to be charging a tiny standard compulsory fee to link, and monitoring the number of hits attracted by the link to award money to the linked-to content on a compulsory flat-fee basis. In the music industry, every time a radio station plays “Beat It”, Michael Jackson’s estate gets a little money, and the amount of money per play is determined by ASCAP or BMI. Solutions based on this principle can be worked out for blogging; they have to be more complicated and the revenue streams are different, but fortunately the incredibly sophisticated architecture of the internet makes such solutions much more feasible than they were for radio. I simply don’t understand why the entire discussion with regard to moving news content out of the Free zone doesn’t revolve around compulsory pay-per-click solutions.
In a related development, here in the Netherlands last week a blue-ribbon government panel (the Commissie Brinkman) issued a report (sorry, Dutch only) on the future of the Dutch newspaper industry. The basic recommendations were for a tax on internet subscriptions with proceeds to subsidize the newspapers, and for government-led initiatives to push broadcasters and newspapers to collaborate. The Dutch situation is different from the US’s because Holland has always subsidized its various broadcasters, and what the Brinkman Report points out is that in an era when the genres of broadcast news and print news have merged on the internet, the subsidy for broadcasters leaves newspapers at an unfair disadvantage.
The internet-subscription tax was met with thunderous critique, and the proposal seems DOA. (Though to me it seems like in principle a non-crazy idea.) But what I’ve missed in the discussion of the Brinkman Report, again, is any discussion of how the new system would incentivize good work on the part of the beneficiaries of the subsidy. It’s all very well to create subsidies for newspapers, but they’re likely to use those subsidies to churn out third-rate junk unless there are competitive incentives. Once again, the compulsory-licensing scheme should be the model: with per-link and per-click payment models, the best work can be rewarded while mediocre work no one ever looks at is not subsidized.
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