Change in Copyright Law: A Possible Solution to News Content Crisis?

By: Evan Leatherwood

Copyright law reform as one remedy for plummeting profits at traditional news organizations was proposed at a media affairs panel organized by the non-profit Center for Communication and hosted by Fordham University earlier this month.

Former public television executive and current Fordham Professor William F. Baker moderated the event which was called ?The Audience: How America Uses its Media.? On the panel: Nielsen executive Gerry Byrne and media lawyer Dean Ringel, a partner at the New York law firm of Cahill Gordon & Reindel.

Ringel advocated introducing compulsory licensing fees for Web-based agregators or re-distributors of news content. Under Ringel?s system, sites like Google would be required to share profits with or pay a fee to any news organization whose content they post, in a system similar to the compulsory licensing system than currently manages rights for cable television and music.

He noted that current copyright law protects the specific expression of information but does not protect the work necessary to obtain that information. Ringel argued that papers like the New York Times, which spend prodigious sums on reporter security in dangerous places around the globe, should get some of the revenue made by third-parties who distribute their content.

Ringel?s proposed system would apply only to sites obtaining revenue from re-posting news content. Sites which did not charge fees or seek advertising revenue, and perhaps even some commercial sites whose readership is below a certain threshold, would be exempt from the requirements.

Denying profits to newspapers and magazines is to ?risk depriving our society as a whole of neutral, professional, prepared and analytic information? said Ringel. Dr. Baker echoed Ringel?s statement by quoting Thomas Jefferson: ?If a nation expects to be both ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never shall be.? All three participants agreed a reliably informed citizenry underpins any successful democracy.

Legal solutions that prohibit the re-posting of headlines or web links entirely risk inhibiting the free flow of information, said Ringel. A content licensing and revenue sharing plan, argued Ringel, would allow the marketplace of ideas while also assuring that the activity of reporting is properly rewarded.

Bynre, senior vice-president at Nielsen Business Media — he oversees Hollywood Reporter, Adweek and Editor & Publisher, among many other titles — spoke frankly about the prospects for economic stability in the news business.

?The TV advertising market in Los Angeles used to be worth $1.2 billion dollars but now the same number of stations are fighting over $500 million,? said Byrne, ?and that means that reporters all across L.A. are getting wiped out of stations because there isn?t anybody whose willing to pay for them anymore.?

Byrne, who is a Marine Corps veteran, joked that ?Sometimes I feel like it would be easier to put on an army uniform and go fight in Afghanistan or Iraq than it would be to stay in the news business.?

The panel members also speculated on what the media industry may look like in the future.

Agreeing with Dr. Baker?s statement that mobile devices are sure to become more important as media outlets, Byrne said, ?Mobile realities are going to explode. Outside the U.S. mobile platforms are way more advanced than we are here.?

Byrne was hopeful about the ability of local media to perform a watchdog function. ?Journalists on a local basis are the cleansing system for what goes on in small communities. Thing like whether local politicians or real estate developers are doing what they?re supposed to.? said Byrne.

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