Problems with great paywall of News International
Newspaper mogul Rupert Murdoch stunned the accepted wisdom of online media experts when he said papers including The Times, Sun and News of the World would start charging for online articles. Laurie Heizler explains why copyright law might make him think again.
The dust is settling on Rupert Murdoch’s major announcement that his UK newspapers will begin to charge for online content from next year – but now the arduous task of making it work begins.
Irrespective of the opinions on whether people will pay for content which they can obtain for free, Murdoch and News International are clearly ready to make a fist of it. So working out the practicalities of making it happen are top of the ‘to do’ list.
Perhaps the biggest potential problem is copyright – or rather, copyright infringement.
There has always been a law to stop the media, and its journalists, from literally copying stories written by rival publications.
But news itself cannot be copyrighted, and this is going to be one of the toughest issues to get past.
Murdoch’s stable – The Times, Sunday Times, News of the World and The Sun – touch both ends of news spectrum and, in both cases, much of what is reported is not exclusive.
Number 10 press conferences brief reporters from most national newspapers while Sir Alex Ferguson’s pre-match press conferences or Simon Cowell’s media events are open to all.
And, as long as reporters don’t copy and paste the words building up to quotes (the way a story is expressed) there’s nothing to stop them lifting the general information.
If it’s on the dictaphone, or written in shorthand, it’s all fair game.
But what happens if, for instance, The Sun breaks an exclusive interview on its paid-for news site with an A-List celebrity after a high-profile affair?
Does Murdoch – who admitted that he plans to “assert our copyright at every point” – need to ensure he has an army of lawyers at the ready, seeking to quash every copyright infringement as soon as it happens?
I don’t think that’s the right approach – and I don’t think it would work.
For starters, it would be a nightmare to police on the web. Established bona fide media sites are unlikely to be the problem, because they would know how much of a story they can ‘get away’ with publishing.
But gossip sites, blogs, forums, social network groups could easily copy the story within minutes and paste it online for all to see.
And, considering that many of those sites require registration, they will be much harder to identify.
So, for me, the way to stamp out copyright infringement is by heavily investing in the technology behind the paid for sites, and making it almost impossible to copy.
At present, The Sun has a very basic online tool which means if you are surfing in Internet Explorer you are blocked from highlighting text or pictures and copying it.
But it’s very limited. If you use a different browser, such as Mozilla Firefox, the tool doesn’t work. It also takes a few seconds to load so, if you’re quick enough, you can get around it.
However, if News International made sure its paid for content cannot be physically copied and pasted at all it has won half of the battle.
People would still be able to ‘print screen’ to capture an image of everything on their screen – but I’m sure NI could look at types of layout that would make that an extremely painstaking process.
Another idea would be to either manipulate the website code – the html – so that anything copied can be tracked. Alternatively, an advanced way of searching the net for key phrases of stories could be developed.
Whatever decision NI makes, it is unlikely to be foolproof. But if they can develop the right technology to make copying text and images from a website as frustrating and difficult as possible they may be able to avoid copyright infringement.
After all, they’d only probably want it for 24 hours until the next wave of stories hit the headlines.
n Laurie Heizler is intellectual property lawyer at Leamington-based Wright Hassall