Dinosaur alert: Irish newspapers desperately trying to charge for links

There’s plenty of experimentation going on in the media business when it comes to finding new methods of monetizing content: leaky paywalls at the New York Times and others, API licensing at The Guardian, membership models like the one Andrew Sullivan just launched, and so on. Irish newspapers, however, would apparently prefer to just charge people for linking to their content — as much as 300 Euros for each link. In a statement released on Friday, the country’s newspaper industry also confirms that it is lobbying to have Irish copyright laws define links as copyright infringement.

This fight has been going on behind the scenes for some time, but recently came to light when Irish lawyer Simon McGarr wrote about attempts by the Irish newspaper industry’s licensing body to charge one of his clients (a charity called Women’s Aid) a fee for linking to newspaper content. According to McGarr, the newspaper licensing group told the charity it had to pay an annual license fee: 300 Euros for one to 5 links, 500 Euros for 6 to 10 links — with a sliding scale extending all the way to 50 links, which would theoretically cost the charity 1,350 Euros. According to the licensing body:

“a licence is required to link directly to an online article even without uploading any of the content directly onto your own website.”

Not surprisingly, this position has been ridiculed by a number of media-industry observers, including journalism professors Jay Rosen and Jeff Jarvis, as well as George Brock of City University in London — some Irish journalists have even apologized on Twitter for their country’s behavior. But in a press release on Friday, the group that represents most of Ireland’s papers maintained that it has every right to charge websites for links, and that it believes linking to newspaper content for commercial purposes should constitute copyright infringement.

[tweet https://twitter.com/jayrosen_nyu/statuses/286109455177895936]

In the release, the National Newspapers of Ireland — which represents 16 national daily, Sunday and weekly newspapers and 25 regional newspapers — tries to differentiate between links that are for “personal use” and links that are for commercial purposes. The statement says none of the group’s members have ever objected to people who hyperlink to newspaper stories, and that the licensing arm of the NNI usually only goes after sites that also engage in other forms of “copying activity” in addition to links, such as reproducing the article “or an extract from it.”

However, the industry group’s statement also says that it has made a submission to the Irish government’s copyright review committee — which is considering changes to the country’s copyright laws — arguing that a simple hyperlink by any commercial entity or for commercial purposes constitutes infringement. The committee is considering a clause that would specifically state that hyperlinks don’t constitute copyright infringement, and the NNI says it is opposed to such a change:

“The NNI made a submission to the effect that our view of existing legislation is that the display and transmission of links does constitute an infringement of copyright.”

Irish newspapers aren’t the first to try and monetize links, or to try and draw a distinction between commercial linking and any other kind: Britain has a newspaper licensing body that fought a long battle with Meltwater — a commercial clipping service that provides summaries of newspaper stories along with links to the original — and recently won a court decision (the Associated Press newswire has also sued Meltwater claiming copyright infringement). And the German government has said it is considering a similar licensing scheme that could even apply to Google News. Most of those cases involve excerpts as well as links, however (which is permitted in the U.S. under the “fair use” principle).

If the Irish industry’s position sounds like a throwback to the early days of the web, that’s because it is: lawsuits over what was called “deep linking” were fairly commonplace in the late 1990s, and some companies even tried to specifically forbid linking in their terms of service. It seems Irish papers would rather turn back time instead of trying to adapt to it. Update: The Irish Times has said that it “does not see links as copyrightable” and encourages readers to share its content, but does take issue with “scraping, summarisation and aggregation of its content.”

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Flickr user Denise Chan