Interview: Meltwater CEO Lyseggen Will Fight UK ‘Link Tax’ On Two Fronts

The PR industry’s Meltwater news monitor says it will continue pursuing the UK Copyright Tribunal case it has brought against the news industry’s Newspaper Licensing Agency (NLA), as well as the High Court counter-claim the agency has brought against it.

Meltwater was one of several news crawlers to object to this January’s introduction by the NLA, which is owned by Britain’s eight main national news publishers, of two new licenses requiring both commercial pay-for news aggregators and their clients to pay for “copying” online news stories for monitor alerts. Both sides are trying to establish an important principle.

The first High Court hearing is due to be held in November, with the Copyright Tribunal expected to start in February.

“There are now two parallel processes but both focusing on the same issue,” Jørn Lyseggen tells paidContent:UK.

“My interpretation is both cases will be run. If the High Court should rule that there is no reason for our clients to pay the NLA, I think that will end it.

“But, if they conclude there should be a license, the Copyright Tribunal would then actually set the license fees.

There might be appeals up until the point where we have a final ruling. But, once we have a final ruling, I expect that all parties will comply.”

The NLA is trying to extend to the web the principles under which it collects fees from PR monitors for the privilege of photocopying paper news clippings for clients.

Meltwater has already paid agreed to pay the NLA £30,000 £10,000 for the annual license required by crawlers themselves (Ed: Meltwater later corrected this figure), but is objecting to the stipulation that their end clients should pay, too, arguing that, although Meltwater “copied” digital articles during processing, clients receive only links to those articles, not copies of them…

“We believe the NLA is wrongfully moving their business model from the paper clipping world to the online clipping world,” Lyseggen says.

“We are moving this forward because we think it’s very important, from a principles perspective, to get a clarification of where English copyright law really stands.”

If Lyseggen wins, it could set an important precedent – that commercial pay-for news aggregators are not “copying” articles by filtering them for readers’ attention (the NLA isn’t targeting aggregators like Google (NSDQ: GOOG) News, which, curiously, it considers non-commercial) because it doesn’t charge users.

If not, there’s still “no big issue” for Meltwater, Lyseggen says, explaining that “the fees for our clients are still nominal, it’s primarily a principle issue”.

But, even in the event of victory, news websites could still unilaterally block Meltwater and others from crawling their sites, as News International‘s websites and Mail Online in the UK have already done whilst awaiting legal outcomes. Isn’t that problematic?

“We though perhaps that could be a problem,” Lyseggen says. “But our experience has been that the large majority of news sites published online are members of the NLA.

“Times Online being behind a paywall is not something we’ve experienced among our clients as a major issue. On the contrary, our clients have been very favourable to the notion they are defending their rights in the online space.

“We think that in spite of all the posturing on the copyright issue, I genuinely believe that media monitoring companies like Meltwater will live in a very symbiotic relationship with media houses. We promote media outlets’ content, whether it’s behind a paywall or not.”

As an example, Lyseggen cites deals in which Meltwater pays sites like The Financial Times to crawl behind their wall and to present the articles within to customers as normal links. Such arrangements are a minority of Meltwater’s 115,000 sources, and it’s clearly in its interest to establish a principal of legal use rather than to require a commercial deal each time.

If either the court or the tribunal rule the NLA is legitimate in requiring crawler customers to pay, it would suggest the likes of Meltwater are free to go ahead and send actual content copies to customers, rather than just URLs.

Lyssegen describes that as “an interesting proposition”: “It’s natural to interpret that we could pass on a copy to our clients as a consequence of that and further develop our service.

“But that has never really been our agenda and would be something we have to evalute down the road.”