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Paper Wall

January 22, 2010

Following the lead of the Financial Times, the New York Times has announced that they will begin limiting access to content to paid subscribers (just in time for the Apple Tablet, I wonder?).  The limitation only kicks in after you’ve read a certain amount of articles per year, but even setting aside the technological aspects of the new policy, people are predicting that this will be a huge game changer.  I’m not actually so sure about that, given that Copyright and technology have largely diverged over the past few years, and actually getting content from the New York Times itself is not nearly as necessary as it was, say, 10 years ago.

In similar publishing news, in the wake of the Google Books, it seems that publishers have turned to the RIAA’s playbook and accused their customers of stealing their products through online file-sharing.  Some have even estimated that such “book piracy” has cost the publishing industry $1 trillion since 2000. I suspect that there may be a deep incongruity between the legal rights that publishers may have under existing Copyright law and the rights that consumers of books believe they have, given the tolerated practice of loaning and circulating books that has predated Copyright law altogether. Of course, the right to do what one pleases with a physical copy of a work has been the consumer’s right carved out of Copyright (known as the First-Sale Doctrine) ever since its inception: Copyright only protects the intellectual property, not the physical embodiments of that intellect.  Given the fact that people perceive their rights to books to include the ability to give it to another friend (possibly because we don’t continue to use books very often after the first read, unlike music, and therefore the good remains “rivalrous” even in digital form), there is a growing disconnect between publishers’ perception of Copyright and consumers’ perception of their rights as readers.

There’s also the issue of what content is actually being protected by these Copyrights, both for book publishers as well as the New York Times.  For creative works, one only has to look at Napster/KaZaA/Pirate Bay/etc. to see how that game is going to be played out.  If people want it, they can send it to each other online, and no amount of foot-stamping and tantrum-throwing by publishers is going to change that.  They will have to woo consumers with some easy-to-digest or value-added rationale for paying for digital content (e.g., the Kindle).

In the case of the more functional New York Times, there’s no way to protect “the news” (at least not the content itself) if we’re serious about any First Amendment protection at all.  The rise of social media like Twitter, Wikileaks (and even Wikipedia) have made any real need for the New York Times almost irrelevant.  Insofar as there is creative and investigative journalism performed by the New York Times, any newsworthy discoveries are practically exempt from Copyright protection due to First Amendment concerns; only the particular expression of those ideas are protectable, and those ideas/events can and should be disseminated and discussed in other forms.  Social newsgathering and curating will continue regardless of whether or not the New York Times wants to reach the broadest possible audience, or go for a more narrow set of opinion-shapers.  Bottom line: the news will get out there; whether people are reading the New York Times or a blog post or a tweet is another question.

I’m not sure where I come down in terms of policy preference on this issue to be honest.  I want news to be as widely disseminated as possible, in a manner that is reliable and professional, and I think the New York Times usually does an excellent job at that.  Furthermore, there is some independent value in having a network good like the New York Times: a paper that everyone reads and can therefore have a common basis for social and political interaction, thus reducing transaction, search, and reliability costs. Non-professional sources of news, on the other hand, will be better with larger numbers of inputs and over longer periods of time, but in the short run require extra efforts at verification and curation, which may slow down the news-dissemination process and make it more difficult to consume.

Regardless of my own tastes, in a networked society such as ours, the publishers aren’t going to win.  People like me will keep reading the news, and some of us may even pay for the nice quality writing of the New York Times, but at the end of the day, we’ll keep telling all the leeches what’s going on.  The question is simply whether the New York Times wants us to get into the practice of mediating for them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. January 22, 2010 10:23 am

    Nice Posting and Good to see this, I agree with you…

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