Sunday, 21 August 2011

Read if you dare

LONDON - The UK Court of Appeals ruled on 26 July that users of news clippings' services must obtain a license from publishers if they wish to click legally on links that take them to the newspaper websites in question. If not, they might be infringing the publisher's copyright.

Most publishers have no objection if an article is looked at for non-commercial purposes, but when it comes down to 'clippings' services, it is entirely a different issue.

The Court of Appeal upheld a High Court decision that clients of a news clippings service, Meltwater - relating to marketing and PR firms - must be in possession of a license in order to look at articles on newspapers' websites, through Meltwater. The Court held that only those who look at these sites for nonprofessional purposes are not breaching any rights, which means that professionals who browse through articles at work - and with their clients in mind - are likely to break the law.

The Court of Appeal did not specify what ' commercial /non-commercial use' is, but perhaps should have done so: when are you looking at a newspaper article 'as part of your job'? Publishers' terms and conditions usually contain a paragraph that states that an article can only be accessed for 'personal and non-commercial' use: does this mean that only someone who reads certain articles at home for his own interest, is not breaking the law? What if that information later on goes to be used in the course of work, one way or another?

Some websites, including those of the Financial Times and the free business daily City AM, are nearly exclusively visited by professionals who want to keep themselves up-to-date with developments in the industry. Not because they want to, but because their job requires them to do so. So it is hard to implement the Court's decision: in many ways, every day, millions of people are possibly breaching publishers' copyrights on a daily basis.

As a result, the Court has - probably unwillingly - put the online publishing industry into turmoil. Surely, newspapers would not want to forbid people from reading their free online editions? Their advertisers would get nervous and the value of the site as a whole would go down. And certain pages could be scrapped if professionals are not allowed to pay them a visit. Undoubtedly, the Court wanted to protect publishers' copyrights and highlight the issue of unique content protection, but if a news service is offered freely and openly to all, you should be able to read its content without having to fear you are breaking the law.