Could existing copyright law provide a legal solution to the news crisis?

AT Alastair Thompson Public Seen by 122

Taken from Reinventing News As A Public Right - A Clue To A Possible Solution

What copyright policy, enforcement or law changes could be adopted to ensure that the creators and authors of the most useful and most important pieces of news content are paid for their work?

The Statute of Anne of 1710 is the origin of New Zealand, English and American copyright law.

At the time of the first reporters were involved in reporting on cases in the courts of London and the proceedings of the Houses of Lords and Commons. The courts needed to deliver consistent justice and the views of the higher courts needed to be relayed to defence counsel to ensure that the rules of precedent in law were followed.

These early law and parliamentary reports were - for obvious reasons very useful and valuable documents for the lawyers who purchased them - and making them more broadly available was in the interests of justice .

The Stationers Guild - who had been granted a license to act as agents of the King as censors also enjoyed perpetual monopolistic powers over the publishing of works that they owned. And by the end of the 17th Century during a period when there was a flourishing in literature in philosophy and science (fuelled by the inventionof the printing press) they were becoming very unpopular to a wide range of groups. John Locke strongly argued at the time that the Stationers were impeding progress and innovation, and therefore injuring the public good through their practices.

When the Licensing Act of 1662 lapsed near the end of the 17th Century, the House of Commons refused to re-enact it. After a period of argy-bargy The Statue of Anne was enacted ensured that reporters as authors were adequately paid to write their reports in order to encourage authorship. And in this way it served a public good, by ensuring through market means that the justice system had access to the news that it needed to function.

Jumping forward three centuries the past two decades of disruption in the news industry have effectively destroyed the livelihoods of the authors of news content, i.e. the trained and skilled reporters, whose skill has for decades helped protect democracy and society from the misdeeds of the powerful.

This article has discussed the effect of this disruption in some depth. The damage has become more obvious in recent years. More and more news reporter colleagues - among them some of the best reporters in NZ - have been made redundant or are struggling to earn a living as freelancers. Many more of NZ's best reporters have left the profession, often reluctantly, because they cannot make an adequate living as a journalist any longer.

And this begs the question: What copyright policy, enforcement or law changes could be adopted to ensure that the creators and authors of the most useful and most important pieces of news content are paid for their work?

Read the complete introduction to this public conversation Reinventing News As A Public Right - A Public Conversation

  • Alastair Thompson, Scoop Editor & Publisher

Bill Rosenberg Sun 25 Jan 2015 3:56AM

Just read your article, Alastair - working my way through them! Very absorbing.

But I'm missing something here as to why copyright is an answer to the problem. I guess it could function something like the way authors get paid on an annual basis for having their books in a library - i.e. they are entitled to payment for use of their work. But that (a) implies turning journalists into self-employed writers with little security and income determined presumably by how much their work was accessed (which has its own implications for what gets reported); and (b) still implies that the money to pay them must be collected somehow which takes us back to the funding problems of the media.

Copyright in itself is increasingly problematic. It has become primarily a protection of corporate monopoly and it, along with other forms of intellectual property rights, lie at the centre of the latest form of international commerce treaties like the TPPA. It is the Sony's, TIme Warners and Hollywoods that want IP rights extended - for copyright, to 70 years and more. That serves them but no-one else. But they are Canutes trying to hold back the digital tide. Digital media mean copyright protection is near impossible. In my view, copyright should be shrunk rather than extended and these huge corporates should be forced to look for other ways to get income. For artists this could mean going back to much greater reliance on live performances for their bread and butter, with digital media sold at a low price as much to advertise their artistic creations as to provide them.

Which is not very helpful in answering your question, sorry.


Alastair Thompson Sun 25 Jan 2015 8:56AM

Thankyou for your thoughtful response.

As I see it a lot of journalists are already self-employed writers with little security and income. And it is presently falling. In addition a lot of their work is routinely re-used for free - shared on Facebook etc. Emailed around business and government organisations etc. As for Copyright you are right - at present the way it is being interpreted it is definitely at the heart of the problem - but we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater and my suggestion that Copyright could offer a solution comes from an interpretation of the original intentions of the law - encouraging creativity - something which the current market forces, giant pools of copyrighted material and monopolised means of distribution actively undermine.

If as a matter of principle & policy we agree that the law ought to create circumstances which protect the ability of writers (and other creators, novelists, musicians etc) to collect money from those who are using their work - and its not I think a question of volume & popularity so much as usefulness - then we can try to work out how to manage how to pay as a secondary issue which would obviously need to be organised.

Step one is to decide what the objective is. And I may frame this as a proposal in this conversation to agree with or disagree with.

When reflecting on the origins of the Statute of Anne, I saw that the problem that we face as a result of the invention of the Internet is very similar to the problem faced back at the dawn of printing.

When it comes to determining who to pay in the News Space (assuming we had a source of funds to use to pay people) there are a bunch of existing technical means which could be used to do this including measuring how much information or variations on it spread and how fast etc. via networks including Facebook, Twitter etc. It is possible for example for robots which are reading (spidering) the web (and giant copies of the web like Google) to search for the level of propagation of news content through blogs etc. which could then determine the "news value" of an individual piece of work. There is also log data from publications etc.

This pool of funds could be split between "originating" publishers and creators possibly and contracts could be arranged to provide those who want security that - while enabling those who want to live on the edge to do so also. This - in the field of reporting - was what it used to be like.

As I see it what is important is to ensure those who do the best journalism get paid for it.

I.E. lets say a reporter (Nicky Hager) breaks a significant story (like Dirty Politics) then why shouldn't he receive income which reflects the down-stream re-use of his content not only by news media and social media but also by the government. The fact that two inquiries were institgated at a cost of presumably close to $1 million as a result of his work should be reflected in his compensation for his work in my mind. That would encourage the best of the best to get back into the business - and to re-create a media which holds the powerful to account.

Working out where to fund this from is another issue but againg there are a bunch of possibilities.

I haven't developed my thinking about this very much yet - but as a starter for 10 I offer this rationale

The general public benefit from inquisitive public good news reporting in a secondary manner - in that society benefits from the fact that they are better informed - and society (as a whole) benefits from them being able to be better informed.

Business, Civil Society and Government insitutions, professionals and organisations however benefit more directly from the existence of functioning news media. I.E. they have an interest in operating in a societal framework which keeps everybody honest. They benefit from the existence of good government and a functional rule of law - both of which in my view can only exist when there is also a strong 4th Estate.

The cost of creating a large enough pool to supplement the creation of quality news while far from negligible is comparatively small in comparison to nearly every other cost of running society. These days a quality reporter can operate in a fairly weightless fashion expenses wise - the media of propagation of news is already there (the internet) - and the future need not include printing presses unless those printing presses continue to be funded by advertising.

I would estimate that there are 150-250 experienced quality reporters and producers working in real news production in NZ - including freelancers (and that may be an over estimate). But for the sake of argument lets use this as a guide and then do a a back of matchbox estimation of what it would cost to make a big difference to this.

We can probably agree that if we were to double that number it would make a significant change to quality of news in NZ. At $100,000 PA per reporter that means $15 to $25 million spent directly on reporting would make a very significant difference to the quality of reporting taking place in NZ.

I think it is useful to make a distinction between the costs of uncovering information which is cheap - and the costs of disseminating it - i.e. printing newspapers and paying for broadcasting production costs - which are huge. These later costs are "medium" related and can logically still be born in large part by advertising and marketing. And if nobody wants to buy print advertising any more than arguably there is no reason for us to waste trees on disseminating news anymore. Similarly broadcast news still has a workable business model in advertising which can cover the "production and broadccast" costs of getting news to consumers - but not one which is capable of paying for the quality journalism and editing which is also needed.

At some point in the near future it is quite possible that the business model around broadcast advertising will also get disrupted - and at that point there will be a new problem to solve.

As I say... proto thoughts rather than proposals. But I think there is some promise in thinking about the value of "reporting" vs the value of publishing and broadcasting. I.E. I am concerned to concentrate on looking for ways to preserve the craft of journalism and the value that it brings to soiety - which is currently being destroyed by the business disruption to the industry which it used to be a key part of. However in looking for a solution fit for a new age we should be looking to make enable news to function in the manner that we want news to function - as opposed to how it currently functions, and how it has functioned in the past.

From what I have seen the debate around these issues has tended to focus on protecting or funding the businesses and institutions (including TVNZ) which previously performed the "news" function and how to save them - when in many ways (as Alison eloquently argues) much of what we now have is already boken, and when we think about it closely has probably always been broken.


Alastair Thompson Thu 29 Jan 2015 12:05AM

A Clarification On My Previous Remarks On Applying Copyright Principles To Funding Individual Journalistic Work On A "Value" Basis

I think on further reflection that the ideas around algorithmic measuring of news impact and value are probably both naive and impractical.

In reality any "system" of doling out money will always be gamed and so the process needs to be cognisant of that and able to respond.

In addition ratings based systems of measuring news value are inherently biased towards the prurient, which is one of the problems with where things are headed now.

Probably best to say that at this point I don't know exactly how a copyright value delivery system for news funding which funds individual journos for their work would work. However I do think that a combination of technology, smart people and goodwill would be able to build somethnig that works.


pilotfever Wed 18 Feb 2015 9:31PM

Oh boy. To answer this I'd need a dozen NDA's and cash up front...
I'm working on a next generation multimedia delivery system that is imbued with live performance characteristics and delivered one to one, meaning not so easily copied or tampered with. It also involves digital watermarking of content that, if reused would provide provenance. Don't think New Zealand has the pockets for it though. That's why I'm in Hong Kong. Everything I've ever mentioned to people in New Zealand is ripped of by middle men and sold overseas... now I have genuine investors I want to wise up!

James Abbott
RealWorld - "Reality Virtualised for the Real You" Limited