RightsLink, Reprints, and the New York Times

by Jason Preston on July 7, 2008

I noticed a new button next to articles on the New York Times this week. It says “reprints.”

Never one to be gun shy with a mouse-click, I decided to check it out. Clicking this link brings up a window from RightsLink, a copyright licensing management company, that offers various options for “licesning” content from the New York Times for varying amounts of money.

I think this is the wrong solution to a very real problem.

The problem is figuring out how to “protect” (which really means, “how do I make sure I am the only who who makes money from”) copyrighted content when it is online.

Introducing artificial barriers is not the way to do it, because you’re betting against the market.

The only reason food prices can be so high in theme parks is that they don’t allow you to bring in your own food. But there’s nothing to stop a different theme park from having cheaper food than yours.

And if every theme park is offering the same rides (or, “all other things being equal”), you bet people are going to flock to the one with the cheapest food.

In fact, the idea of licensing an entire article is absurd. If you’re a legitimate reseller, why would you pay money to have duplicate content on your server when you could simply put up a link to the original source? Licensed reproduction only makes sense if the original piece is somehow inaccessible.

And if you’re a thief, copying digital content is so easy it’s basically a no-brainer. The internet’s greatest strength (easy distribution and reproduction) is the enemy of every business built on controlling reproduction and distribution.

No, the solution to protecting content is not in trying to put limits on how it can be digitally copied and redistributed (a lost cause, if you want your content on the internet), but in finding a good way to make money on that content wherever it may reside.

Find a way to embed your advertising so that you make money on it everywhere, the same way YouTube gets brand exposure every time someone embeds a video on their blog.

Maybe Google should let news operations “register” their content so that whenever google serves AdSense alongside that content, the news company gets a cut of the ads instead of the site host (take that, content thieves!).

I don’t know what the solution is yet, but I do know that trying to beat the internet by building artificial barriers is not the answer. Like excessive copy protection in video games, all you are likely to do is thwart the non-technical users of your content, instead of deterring the ever-savvy abusers of your content.