An absolutely, positively, idiotic abuse of copyright

Just when you think you’ve seen every copyright-related stupidity in the book, here comes another. A Real Doozie, if I’ve ever seen one.

Judge Richard Posner has proposed a radical idea to expand copyright law yet again, to bar linking to copyrighted newspaper stories. The idea is to keep the cash cows mooing for large, commercial news-gathering operations like Reuters, AP, UPI, etc.

Dan Kennedy of the Guardian also wrote an excellent piece about this proposal, and I share Dan’s gratitude that the judge expressed his opinion on copyright from somewhere besides the bench.

Yeah, this idea of Posner’s is one triply radical idea–radically dubious, radically short-sighted, and radically heavy-handed. If something must be done to prop up the declining “old school” news agencies, expanding copyright in such an arbitrary fashion is definitely not the way to do it.

Without linking, the World Wide Web isn’t much of a web anymore. If there was a time to say linking should fall under copyright restrictions–and that’s a mighty big if–that time was somewhere from 1987 up to about 1992, when hypertext either had yet to find its way on the Internet or had been there maybe a year or two.

To make such a huge change now is a mistake. Restricting linking under the guise of copyright makes as much sense as short-sighted as the DAT and audio CD-R taxes the RIAA fought for and got. Which is to say, none at all.

Judge Posner suggests economics are the driving force behind the falling readership of newspapers in print:

News, as well the other information found in newspapers, is available online for nothing, including at the websites of the newspapers themselves, who thus are giving away content. The fact that online viewing is rising as print circulation is falling indicates a shift of consumers from the paid to the free medium. The economic downturn has doubtless accelerated the trend, but economic recovery is unlikely to reverse it. To repeat my earlier point, many of the people who have switched under economic pressure to the free medium may find themselves as happy or happier and hence will not switch back when their financial condition improves.

Not surprisingly, I vehemently disagree. Economics aside, three things are notable about printed newspapers:

  • Newspaper can be clumsy and messy in certain situations;
  • Newspaper and ink have gotten much more expensive over the last two decades;
  • Guessing demand is a huge problem; a waste problem if too many copies are printed on a given day, a disgruntled reader problem if too few are printed.

The rising costs of both killed the Houston Post in the pre-Internet era (the remaining Houston newspaper, the Houston Chronicle, bought the Post’s assets including the archives).

In 1995 when the Post failed, both Houston papers and USA Today were selling for US$0.50 per copy during the week. Today, both the Chronicle and USA Today in paper form sell for twice that (US$1.00). The Chronicle has almost doubled its Sunday paper price from US$1.00 to US$1.75 over about the same time frame.

I believe the days of news stories being printed on paper to be numbered and quickly drawing to an end. Ten years from now, I doubt even alternative weekly newspapers like the Houston Press will be distributed in print.

A.J. Liebling’s famous quote “Freedom of the press is limited to those that own one” has taken on a whole new meaning in the nearly half a century after his death in 1963. Today, anyone can get started with a Web site for a very small amount of money, sometimes as little as US$0.25 (on, where incidentally this blog is currently hosted). If one finds themselves without two quarters to rub together after smashing the piggybank, one can even set up a blog on sites like for free and move it to a Web host of one’s choosing later.

I envision the future “newspaper” being available either exclusively on the Web, perhaps being funded on a sliding-scale subscription basis or even the honor system. The reporters of the future? They may be paid by the story out of subscription funds. Or, for smaller sites, they may be amateurs who maintain or contribute to a news site primarily as a hobby.

This could well be anathema to Posner, who observes earlier in his post:

Moreover, while in many industries a reduction in output need not entail any reduction in the quality of the product, in newspaper it does entail a reduction in quality. Most of the costs of a newspaper are fixed costs, that is, costs invariant to output–for they are journalists’ salaries.

I believe salaried journalists will likely be a distant memory in about a decade as well. Most copywriters are paid by the story, sometimes based on length.

Now, the actual word “newspaper”? I’m pretty sure in some form, it will stick around. People refer to “taping” or “filming” something, in the era where it’s more likely a digital video camera is recording onto DVD, hard disk, or flash-memory-based media (e.g. SD or CompactFlash). Even today, WordPress or Drupal themes often make reference to a “newspaper” layout. It’ll be a couple of decades before we have to tell the kids what newspapers were and how they got their name.

We no longer live in an era where one must buy a printing press to get one’s word out. This is the digital age, and the Web server now sits in the same throne that printing press once occupied as king.