Expanding copyright to allow rent seeking for linking would break the fabric of the Internet. Links and citations to articles do not infringe copyright, as links do not copy, distribute, or perform any copyrighted work. Despite some desperate assertions of the contrary, copyright protection of links is not enshrined in law. Newspapers, however, are pushing for legislation to support this dangerous claim, regardless of the implications it would have for free speech.

The Internet has changed the face of journalism by lowering barriers to mass publication and opening avenues for sharing and distributing news. But despite the new opportunities of a democratized media and citizen driven journalism, established journalistic institutions are struggling to adapt to the changing landscape of the news industry. While papers around the world are working to find new ways to make money and compete in the digital world, many experiments with varying subscription models have been so far unsuccessful. Staring down the barrel of vanishing revenues, some newspaper organizations have, for many years, resorted to aggressive enforcement of copyright ownership claims.

Newspapers across Europe in particular have sought to prevent third parties from linking to or displaying excerpts of their news content unless those sites provide proper notice to the news publisher and pay royalty fees for what the papers determine to be “commercial use.” Rather than revel in the benefits of more traffic, these newspapers demand that search engines and third party sites give them a cut of profits that come associated with the sale of advertisements.

Irish Newspaper Groups Shakedown Charities for Posting a Link

The National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), an organization that represents over 40 national and regional newspapers across the country, has begun to send notices to websites that link to its news articles, demanding they pay hundreds of euros in royalty fees for each link. Many of the recipients of these shakedown letters are charities, including Women’s Aid, an Irish non-profit organization that provides direct assistance for victims of domestic violence. It received a notice over a link it posted to a news story about the success of its fundraising efforts, and was asked to pay over $450 for doing so.

These infringement notices are groundless. In 2012, the NNI submitted comments [pdf] to the Irish Copyright Review Committee, proposing amendments to copyright law to outlaw linking to copyright-protected content. But then in a statement posted on their website, the NNI then claimed that even the “display and transmission of links” would already count as a copyright infringement under current Irish law, when it is done “for commercial purposes without prior consent and payment.” NNI claims it won’t go after links posted for social, private reasons.

Blogs around the world have denounced the Irish newspaper associations for being so out of touch. The Irish Times, a member of the NNI, even came out against the association saying that it disagrees that links should be considered copyrightable, and encourages sharing links to its content.

The attention seems to have made a difference, as Irish newspapers associations began to draw back their claims this week. On Monday, Newspaper Licensing Ireland (NLI), an association closely tied to the NNI (they even share the same mailing address), came out and stated that it no longer has a problem with sites linking to its content, but would still require a license if those sites were to reproduce the content in any way, including the “display of PDFs or text extracts.” While this is a definite improvement from the previous position, it is still deeply problematic. As long as excerpted or re-displayed content cites the origin of its work, such uses are fair dealing, and demanding ownership over excerpted work is still another dangerous overextension of copyright.

New German Bill Underway to Create Copyright-Like Right Over News Excerpts

Unfortunately, Irish newspapers are not the only news organizations lobbying for greater copyright protections. Newspapers in Germany have been mobilizing for a similar law since 2009, and re-started their efforts last year. A bill is before the German Parliament that would amend the German Copyright Act, and give newspapers a new copyright-like exclusive right over the commercial publication of their published materials. The law would allow content to be shared as a link or excerpted, as long as they are not search engines or link aggregating websites. This protection would last a year from the publication date, and would in effect make it illegal for sites like Google and Reddit from freely quoting German news articles unless they choose to pay royalty fees for each use.

Recognizing the tremendous damage this law would have on its services and the Internet at large, Google launched a petition campaign in German called “Defend Your Web.” In response, politicians who back the initiative have accused Google of spreading propaganda and lobbying for its own interests—a curious claim given that the copyright bill is an obvious result of heavy lobbying by the publishing industry. The next movement on this bill will occur on January 30, when the judiciary committee of the German Parliament is scheduled to put on an expert hearing. We will be closely monitoring these discussions as they evolve.

Sharing content by link is not only second nature for anyone who uses the Internet, it’s also outside of the scope of copyright’s exclusive rights. Excerpting the content is just as vital, giving the user the information necessary to decide whether to click through. Links with excerpts drive traffic and create value for the target. 

These newspapers’ campaigns are self-defeating, as user traffic and viewership is what creates the value of their website. With falling ad sales and declining readership, newspapers are struggling. But instead of these awkward and foolish attempts to assert new copyrights, they should focus their attention on exploring innovative ways to deliver quality journalism to the public, and find new ways to create revenues from their work that acknowledges the spirit of sharing on the Internet.