Taking the ‘free’ out of the ‘free flow’ of information

David Westin, president of ABC News and a member of the board of directors of the Associated Press, ponders in the Friday opinion section of The Wall Street Journal a topic that is at the core of the debate over how to pay for intellectual property in the age of the Internet, when plagiarism is as simple as cut and paste.

He takes as his canvas for his essay the suit and countersuit between self-styled artist Shepard Fairey and The Associated Press.

The two parties are suing each other over the ubiquitous poster titled “Obama Hope” that Fairey created from a 2006 AP photo by Mannie Garcia.

AP says Fairey misappropriated its property but Fairy claims fair use under copyright law.

The “fair use” doctrine allows me and you to use a paragraph or two of someone else’s writing so long as you do not claim it is our own original work and especially if we attribute to the author.

Taking an entire or substantial portion of an article, photo, book, etc. without permission of the owner, even if attributed, is a copyright violation.

Westin augered in on the crux of this issue thusly:

“The availability of timely, accurate news and information about what is going on around us is critical to a democratic society …

“Even in a time of blogs and Tweets, there is a role, indeed a powerful need, for at least some who take the time and yes, spend the money, to go out and report back on things that matter to all of us. It may sound nice to talk in terms of making the use of our reporting ‘free.’ But we must not take away the means by which we obtain the information in the first place. We must not let the free be the enemy of the ‘flow’ when it comes to the free flow of information.”

Who will be willing to expend the effort to gather and disseminate news and information when it can be stolen or aggregated and given away by someone else? This is a fundamental element in the ongoing debate of the future of newspapers.

Another lawsuit involving the AP also illustrates the problem.

AP has sued a company calling itself All Headline News, claiming the company is snatching its “hot news” reports, then rewriting them, removing any AP credit.

One of the issues central to the case is the question of what can qualify for a copyright. A news organization, just because it learned of it first, cannot claim to “own” an event, only its unique presentation of that information.

For example, if one news medium learns of a house fire in Henderson first and reports it, that doesn’t prevent all other media from pursuing their own stories independently, doing their own legwork. Occasionally, the information sources are unavailable. In that case, the proper thing to do is attribute any reporting to the original source.

In the AP v. AHN case, according to Law.com, a New York court has ruled that letting a news agency steal the work of another would “render all publication profitless, or so little profitable as in effect to cut off the service by rendering the cost prohibitive in comparison with the return.”

In which case the parasite would kill the host and both would die financially.

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