I’m realistic enough to know that content does not produce itself. Well written stories require a certain amount of effort and, if you are a publishing outlet, it requires a certain amount of money to produce it. If anyone’s going to stay in business as a publisher, they need to protect their product’s business scarcity.
I’m co-opting the term business scarcity, to show that there is a clear difference between non-business use of content and business use of content, and to help explain why one of them should cost money, and the other one should not.
Personal use is fair use
Non-business use of content is advertising. The conversation that news consumers have outside of your site is both socially valuable (some would say, “democracy in action”) and free content promotion. The more pages that refer to your work and your brand, the chances you have to convert a passing reader to an enthusiastic fan.
That exposure is valuable and free, and it’s the last thing in the world you should want to stop. These people are your best customers.
The important thing is to make sure that you don’t lump your customers in with your parasites. There really is a material difference between Fred Wilson, his use of the New York Times, and the Huffington Post, and their use of the New York Times.
Fred serves ads on his site, but he doesn’t clear 50k in annual revenue, nor does he keep the money. When he sources the New York Times, his goal is to advance the conversation, or to share a really good story with people who haven’t already found it.
When the Huffington Post sources the New York Times, their goal is to take content that they did not have to pay for, and make money with it. I’ll go ahead and assume they’re not completely evil, and that they select the stories they share based on whether they want to advance the conversation or the quality of the article, but at the basic level they’re trying to make a buck for free.
This concept annoys even the “information is free” junkies who wrote the Creative Commons licenses. It’s generally frowned upon (in legalese) for someone to take, say, an e-book I’ve written and licensed under a CC license, and sell it for money to someone else.
If you’re making money with something, you’d better have put something into it.
Telling the difference is hard
It’s one of those “you have to look at it” things. The bad news is that if you’re the AP, or the New York Times, you need to hire someone (or some company) to do the research for you – to look at the sites where your content is being republished, in whole or in part, and decide whether or not that site is a business.
And a human needs to make that decision.
It’s a cost that I think is well worth it, when you consider the PR value of Not Screwing Up. Everyone hates the RIAA because they sued 85 year old grandmas for stealing content when it was clearly their 16 year old grandchildren who were stealing.*
A good barometer, aside from that intangible decision, is probably the amount of money any particular site makes. If I were at the AP, I’d set the number privately, and approach sites that seem like they’re making more than, say, $250,000 per year in revenue.
These sites owe a subscription fee for use of content, or of course, they could choose stop republishing it. If they’re under the magic number, let the prove it. If they’re under, wait until they grow.
In the end it strikes me as a remarkably fair solution. Assessing a fee on businesses who are using your content to draw revenue is a perfectly legitimate business strategy; it’s called reselling.
* I buy all my music. Downloading music from torrents is stealing, and I’m not hypocritical enough to steal digital content when I want to make a career out of producing such things.
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