The Brothers Marburger want to rewrite copyright law to save newspapers, and thereby, journalism. They want “aggregators” to pay “newspapers” for linking to/summarizing their pieces, and they want to bar “aggregators” from “profiting” from the articles “belonging” to a “newspaper” for 24 hours after posting. Quotes here are mine, to convey that none of these words mean anything particularly precise. There’s so much to take apart here, I’m stymied as to where to begin.
One thing I should admit upfront is that I have never in my life subscribed to a newspaper. My mother did for a while. I was in one, the Evening Outlook in Santa Monica as a kid, and I liked that. But not only did I rarely read them, when I did it was mostly the comics and the stock prices1. There’s a simple physical reason- I hate the way the paper and ink feel on my skin. Cheap newsprint on my fingers acts on my nervous system like finger nails on a chalk board. I hate hate hate slightly slightly greasy, slightly crumbly texture, and the way it comes off on my hands, making them feel dirty, dried out, and oily all at once. Just talking about it makes me want to wash my hands.
But boy did I always love the idea of journalism. I knew I wanted to be a writer and journalist when I grew up pretty much from the 3rd grade. Knew. (Why I didn’t start until I was in my 30s is another long and at times troublesome story) For both dermatological and career/personal reasons, the coming of the web opened the door to my first desire. I left what was shaping up to be a lucrative career in interface design to become a freelance writer.
Some friends expressed their confusion; I was jumping off the Queen Mary onto a barge that was not only skanky, but as far as anyone could tell, already actually on fire. 2005/6 was a hell of a time to declare oneself for journalism. I’ve never worked in a newsroom, though I interviewed once at the Chron. I was told ‘morale is very low’ during the interview, for which I had no pithy reply. A few moments later I admitted that I read my news off Google News. I didn’t get the job. When I was asked later by a Reuters guy why the hell I’d gone for that interview, I told him I kind of wanted to work in a newspaper’s newsroom before they all went away, and I figured that was one of my last chances. He laughed the hard laugh of the bitter and damned, and asked if he could quote me.
People have wondered why I’m not more scared, and the short answer is this: I’m not an employee. I’m a well, a mine. Whatever else gets lost or shuffled, I’m necessary. I can interview, investigate, learn, and then explain. I can write and take pictures. I can give you whatever form you want for those final productions, I don’t care that much. Like the musician and the auteur, I am the natural resource that becomes the product in the hands of an industry. Wherever you put me, however much you pay me, whatever my outlet, I’m still a journalist.
Just like the RIAA isn’t actually trying to save the art form of music, and the MPAA isn’t trying to save the filmic expression, Newspaper people aren’t trying to save journalism. Sometimes the people aligned with these organizations know this, and argue instead for the value their particular infrastructures add to those fields. Those more respectable arguments I can appreciate even when I don’t completely agree.
In an interview I did years ago with Monique Wadsted of the Swedish bit of the MPA (The MPAA’s wee international bit) she argued that in the long run uncontrolled piracy could threaten the huge budget productions that we enjoy. She has a point- a flattened marketplace may not have the investment capital to pour into a yearly summer blockbuster season that costs as much as a small nation’s GDP. I am not actually being flippant here. I love summer blockbuster season. I love the enormous spectacle of the things, their ridiculous scale, comic book motifs and the jewel tone richness. I’m glad we make them, the same way I’m glad people thousands of years ago made the pyramids. But I don’t confuse the pyramids with all building, or Hollywood productions with all cinematic expression.
It seems like every time someone argues for tightening copyright to protect their industry, they conflate their industry with their field of endeavor. But it’s newspapers that are the absolute worst offenders here. Newspapers, newspaper people contend, are the only authoritative source of journalism, the only trustworthy arbiters, the only stalwart defenders democracy can trust. For the sake of our soul as a nation the laws must be changed to ensure the survival of their business model. This argument has the kind of conflict of interest and special pleading that gets journalist salivating, when it’s not about the people that sign their checks.
Some are salivating anyway, like my friend just this guy I happen to know, no friendship stuff or anything, King Kaufman at Salon. He co-writes the Future of Journalism blog, which can be ungentle, at times, with the blithering idiots.
There’s a form of the argument against amending the laws that doesn’t apply to the RIAA or MPAA, which is that newspapers were shitty at their sacred duty. Bill Wyman lays this out very nicely- that the business incentives all pointed towards not upsetting or offending anyone, which kind of runs counter to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.” Newspapers did come to play it safe, and safe became more important in many cases than right. As Lore pointed out, “No one ever got fired for installing an evil Microsoft product.” Part of the problem was also biological structural: primates don’t like getting yelled at and avoid it. There are a few that by some accident aren’t too put off by this, and they do often become journalists. They don’t often become managers, even the ones that work at papers.
There’s an argument newspapers were compromised by media consolidation and therefore don’t deserve the protections they seek. These are interesting arguments, and should probably get lots and lots of blah blah blah Inside Journo Baseball. But I don’t actually care about them. Even if they did everything right I don’t want to see newspaper’s special pleading succeed. There’s no reason it has to be them doing it in the future, that journalism has to look like it did in the past.
That there is something good in an existing institution isn’t enough. It has to be better than what we gain when we lose it. For instance, there are a lot of things we might gain from perfect DRM, but creating perfect DRM would require outlawing and destroying the general purpose computer. No contest- we’ll live without.
What the brothers Marburger would ask the world to give up is the fast linking and commentary of the internet, and the diversity of talents outside of corporate newspapers becoming the watchdogs of society. They would also ask the world to give up a lot of reporting, and some of the power media has to afflict the comfortable.
Scandals would be far easier to get out in front of if news spreading is slowed by copyright restrictions. I can get my side of the story out to as many aggregators and blogs as possible, your side has to wait 24 hours. Is an aggregator still an aggregator if it does original reporting or commentary? There aren’t many that don’t. Is WaPo still a paper when it blogs, quotes, and links? Do I get to sue them if they link to and reproduce this post before a day has passed? More news stories then ever are bubbling up from on-site amateurs, will this law protect them? From what? If several people are all working on the same story, does only the first one get to publish? Does it depend on how much one’s employer looks like an aggregator vs newspaper? If so, what incentive does anyone have to take a little extra time to get it right? If I want to make sure a story never really can be written about, can I “register” somewhere as a paper and write about it every 24 hours? What about international sources, are they to be protected/embargoed? If I put my aggregator in Latvia, but live in NYC and take adverts from Google, what are you going to do? What about when the whole situation is reversed, as in the case of Global Voices2?
And all of this might not even save newspapers, even while the damage to journalism would be intolerable. And I like journalism more.
1 Mom’s requirement. I have the distinction of being the only person I know that knew how to read the financial papers, operate several kinds of firearms, hide illegal drugs on my person, relate and analyze good portions of Greek mythology, and identify and sabotage a distributor cap by around age 10. My parents were never, ever boring.
2 GV is pure and simple, simpler than most, a blog aggregator. When it studied its readership, it found that a very high number of people reading were journalists, and most of them admitted they’d gotten stories from GV and written about them in ‘legitimate’ news outlets. One of those journalists was me. Thanks, Global Voices! Please don’t sue me for the thing you kind of wanted me to do! Oh this has gotten so confusing.