Copyright Misconceptions Are Common Among Computer Users

By: Steve Outing

Among the various activities I engage in as an online publishing consultant is operating 2 Internet mailing lists, online-news and online-newspapers, on the topic of online news publishing. A recent incident and ensuing debate about copyright infringement is worth noting here, as it points out how important it is for electronic publishers to educate their users about what is allowable and what is not.

A few days ago a college professor (who, ironically, has been involved in helping students create an online newspaper) posted to the online-news list the text of an article from the Rocky Mountain News. That message went out -- unfiltered by me, because online-news is an unmoderated list -- to about 1,500 people around the world. I, as the list "owner," sent out a message to the list indicating that redistributing a copyrighted work to the list breached the list's rules and is an infringement of the copyright held by the News.

I expected that to be the last of the issue (it seemed to me to be an obvious infringement of copyright), but was surprised not only to receive a strong rebuttal from the professor but also to hear sentiments similar to his from other list members. The professor's contention was that 1) the article did not contain an indication that it was copyrighted by the News, 2) posting a message to an Internet list could not be considered "publishing," and 3) the several-day-old newspaper article no longer had value so he wasn't depriving the publisher from further monetary gain. He further contended that it is "hypocritical for journalists to defend free expression when it comes to dirty words and to foreclose free expression when it comes to distribution of news stories that have no proprietary value or worth."

Most intellectual property experts will agree that his contention is erroreous, and that redistributing a copyrighted work without permission to hundreds of people on the Internet is an egregious example of copyright infringement. (This is not to say that a publisher like the News is likely to take action against someone who posts one of its articles to a list. Technically, it could do so; it practice, anything more than a note to the person educating them about intellectual property rights would be a waste of effort -- assuming this was an isolated event and that the person was not making a monetary gain from his action.)

Most readers of this column, as publishers, already are aware of the flaws in the professor's argument. My point in writing about this today is to make you aware that you, as online publishers, have a major job of educating your subscribers or users about the rules of copyright as they apply in cyberspace. That some people who work and are educated in publishing should be confused about intellectual property protection -- or have a wholly different interpretation of what copyright law states -- should ring alarm bells to operators of newspaper online services.

If everyone in the field is not clear on what's permissible, you can bet that a major portion of the general public doesn't have a clue about what's allowable. Posting the full text of a copyrighted newspaper or magazine article to an Internet newsgroup or mailing list is, unfortunately, a common occurrence. Computer users need to be instructed that redistributing newspaper articles that they find online is not permissible. If you don't educate your subscribers, you will likely find that your publication's articles and pictures are being traded freely around the Internet.

In the online environment, it is an extremely simple matter to copy a story found on a newspaper Web site. Making a digital copy of a copyrighted article from a Web site and sending it to one or two other people is not something that's damaging (except in the smallest of ways) to a publisher. But when a user of that Web site redistributes that article to a newsgroup or mailing list that contains thousands of readers, a case can be made that economic harm has been done. Unless you educate your users, rest assured that such abuses WILL occur.

What was interesting about the online-news debate was the differing interpretations of copyright law. A schism seemed to open up between journalists and academics on the list -- journalists wanting to protect their copyrighted works and some academics arguing for the right to freely redistribute news articles for educational or discussion purposes (such as by posting an article on an Internet mailing list).

I asked Neal Friedman, a Washington, D.C., attorney with Pepper & Corazzini L.L.P., who specializes in intellectual property and the Internet, to comment on the issues raised. He explained the rights of an individual who purchases a newspaper: The reader can clip and file an article; make a photocopy and put it in his file; and clip it and send it to a friend. The reader cannot, Friedman says, make copies of the article and distribute it to other people (which would include distributing it on an Internet list or newsgroup). These rules fall under provisions of the "First Sale Doctrine." The newspaper story reader is not entitled to make further distribution because such action could deprive the publisher (copyright holder) of economic value from further distributing it elsewhere.

As should be obvious, dated newspaper articles have great value in the online environment; they are far from having "no proprietary value or worth." Many online newspaper services are earning significant revenues from selling access to electronic archives of their content. Internet users freely redistributing newspaper articles around cyberspace indeed could have an economic impact.

Education, not lawsuits, is the path online publishers should be taking to ensure that misinformed online readers do not do your publication economic harm.

Stop The Presses! server glitch

Some of you may have had problems on Wednesday accessing this column (as well as the Editor & Publisher Interactive Web site). If you used the URL (or have it bookmarked), you probably received an "access forbidden" error message. This was due to a change inadvertently made by E&P Interactive's Internet provider that rendered that address inaccessible temporarily.

The correct address for this column (which worked on Wednesday even when the other URL did not) is . I would suggest that you replace your bookmark if it contains the older address. (The longer address is working again, however.)

Best Online Newspaper Services Competition

Please don't forget to nominate your own company or another for Editor & Publisher/The Kelsey Group's 1996 Best Online Newspaper Services Competition. The nomination form is on the Web at Deadline for nominations is January 24, 1996. Winners will be announced at the Interactive Newspapers conference in San Francisco on February 24, 1996.

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