Caught in the Web

Liberty and property in Old Media and New

I refuse to be tarred with the accusation of coddling bloggers. So before I say what I have come to say, let me first say this: I love my unalienable rights. Life. That’s a good one. Liberty. Can’t be beat. The pursuit of happiness. Hey, that’s the right to pretty much everything! But let’s get back to original intent: Jefferson just stuck the happiness bit in there as a politically correct code for Locke’s real deal: property. Didn’t he? And I love my property. In particular, as a writer, I love my intellectual property.

Over the past several months, a Las Vegas law firm called Righthaven has been suing bloggers for posting, with attribution, copyrighted material from the Review-Journal. As a journalist and a Las Vegan, I am proud to be identified, by place of residence if not by institutional prestige, with a newspaper that has finally stood up to the anarchistic e-thieves who believe the purpose of the Internet is to facilitate information sharing.

But as a longtime reader of our local daily, I have learned a thing or two about liberty and property. Pure liberty gives philosophical cover for violating the next fellow’s space (and don’t be shocked if you get violated right back). Pure property rights, meanwhile, grant liberty only in the imaginary realm where everything around you is yours and yours alone.

In the real world, liberty and property rights exist in a mutually beneficial state of compromise.

So if a publisher calls out for property rights and a blogger answers in defense of liberty, we wind up with no clear-cut moral winner. The publisher enriches the culture by paying for intelligence gathering, creativity, branding and legitimacy. The blogger, ostensibly, makes the culture smarter and freer by critiquing the publisher’s work and spreading word of its existence. The fact is, these days they can’t live without one another.

There is, of course, a crotchety old Brontosaurus (remember those?) inside every print journalist roaring out, “Stop stealing stuff, bloggers! They can’t pay me if you’re giving it away for free!” A particularly enlightened Bronto might even dig into his deep store of digital knowledge and cry out, “Have we learned nothing from Napster?”

But that same Brontosaurus has his paws, or whatever, on the keyboard, eagerly Googling the subject of his next story and turning up, you guessed it, blogs, each of them full of freshly posted newspaper articles. Now, posting articles in full, even with attribution, is lousy blogger etiquette. Under fair use, a short extract—just enough to whet the appetite—followed by a “read more” link sending readers to the source would be about right. That’s all the R-J should be asking for. And the R-J, if for no other reason than to avoid giving the impression of an institution in its mad death throes, should ask nicely.

A tacit bargain has been struck between content providers and content curators—that is, between prehistoric lizards and bloodsucking bloggers. The more curators you have, the more readers you have. And in the overstocked warehouse of the Internet, folks aren’t likely to find you without a curator. I am a fan of the bundled news product, but in the age of subject searches, news aggregators and archives on demand, Web users increasingly find their way to newspaper articles (and, one hopes, newspaper sites) via a middleman.

Let’s run through a not-so-hypothetical example of how this stuff, at its best, might work. Anthony Curtis, a Las Vegas insider with a good name, niche expertise and a following, provides the R-J with the results of his survey on Las Vegas show prices. The R-J then spins the results into a newspaper article. Curtis, in turn, having been touched by the legitimizing brush of a respected local daily, decides to proudly post the article, with attribution, on his blog. Are we not operating in the realm of, as Stephen Covey might say, “win-win interdependence”? The blogger gets to spread the word, the reader has better odds of encountering the word, and the owner of the word—the publisher—winds up with increased recognition on the Web. Roll credits. Happy ending.

Except Curtis got sued.

The problem is, recognition alone won’t pay the bills. Newspaper web sites need empirical evidence of eyes on the page: Roughly speaking, eyes mean ads. Content providers have been donating value since the early days of the Web, and they’re in a foul humor. They have compromised their culture repeatedly, and at long last they’ve realized that information doesn’t want to be free, because it is not gathered and processed for free. But newspapers will not retrace their steps to some pre-digital Eden by hounding individual bloggers.

Meanwhile, if the digital world wants to continue to reap the benefits of professional newsgathering, its denizens will have to make some cultural shifts of their own. Doing their best to steer readers back to the source would be a good place to start. Much has been made of the liberty offered by the humble hyperlink; but the well-placed link is also at the root of respect for property rights, media mutuality, and simple courtesy between creator and curator. It builds a relationship upon both freedom and fairness. One imagines Locke wouldn’t have a problem with that. And neither should the R-J.

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