Free Speech?

Not too long ago, I read a testy blog post via Technorati criticizing the Huffington Post for misappropriating content from news services in order to populate its website. HuffPo, according to this article, was culling the best pieces from news and content sites across the web, copying and pasting their content into a blog post, adding a little bit of commentary, including a link to the original site, and then publishing the post. The question in this case — and in others that are very similar — is: what constitutes “fair use”?

With the impending shut down of traditional newspapers, most people are getting their content online. The biggest issue that authors face is not just the minutia of determining “fair use”  when distributing and redistributing information in this rapidly expanding online marketplace, but rather the addressing fundamental issue of content attribution.

What makes the Huffington Post case a bellwether for future internet content infringement cases is that there are millions of people who regard this manner of getting — and aggregating — information as totally ordinary and seamless. There are aggregator blogs all over the internet that make their bread and butter by culling links of interest to their readers, adding some commentary, and republishing them. In theory, this is a win-win for everyone: the aggregator sites also post ads (or sell promotional blog posts), products/stories/news outlets/authors get expanded coverage, and readers get specialized, directed content. Information on the internet is totally ubiquitous — and we regard it as totally free. When websites get advertisers to pay for content (not a bad thing, I should add), it reinforces the idea that this content — articles that writers at newspapers who have worked hard for, and sometimes risked their lives for — that this is free content.

Two weeks ago, the Seattle P-I announced that it would be put up for sale, and if no buyers were found, it would either go online entirely, or shut down for good. Over the last six months, the Seattle Times has faltered substantially, appearing on newspaper death pool lists for 2009. The Atlantic has predicted that the New York Times may not have a printed paper by June of 2009, given that the 20 million readers who read the online paper are supported by a meager 1 million readers of the printed paper and its advertisers. 

Despite the dwindling paper subscriptions, the printed word still maintains unshakeable gravitas; an event is only preserved for history once it is written down, printed, and archived. The day after President Obama’s historic election, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, and the LA Times couldn’t keep up with demand for printed papers — there are photos across the internet of people lining up around city blocks to purchase their copies of the newspaper.

To flip this idea around, I think we simply don’t take as seriously the content that we read online. Not that it isn’t real — it is — but that it lacks the same substance or weightiness. Any decent university arts program that teaches research and writing methods is based heavily on printed materials: books go through extensive vetting and editorial processed, and their information can be regarded as fully valid. On the internet, we all know that Wikipedia is not to be taken for granted, but in practice, how many of us go to Wikipedia first, and leave the Encyclopedia Britannica on the shelves at the local public library?

My point here is that the information we find online is all regarded as being part of a larger, free information pool. In the same way that you don’t really have to cite Wikipedia because it’s not a legitimate source, you don’t really have to credit and pay authors to use their content on aggregator cites. (Musicians have long controlled their content: there are a variety of different kinds of licenses available depending on whether you wish to perform a musician’s piece or simply pipe in a radio into an elevator. Maybe writers need the same thing??) At what point do you cross the line between quoting a source and committing outright plagiarism?

And this all brings me to my own uneasiness about blogging. It is very difficult for me to actively protect my ideas in this forum. I write about ideas that are interesting to me, and I use this as a forum to work out ideas that are still inchoate. I have vague fears that my work will get “borrowed” by harried undergrads in search of paper topics, but I also worry that this is an illegitimate forum to write about serious, potentially academic ideas. I don’t know. It’s what I’ve got, so I’m going with it. I will say that I will be very interested to see what happens over the coming years to the laws around content ownership and fair use, especially as more and more writers take most of their business and content production online.

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~ by ecp on January 23, 2009.

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