A price to pay for news

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Unauthorized use of someone else's written content is a problem that dates back centuries, but it is much more prevalent in the Internet age.

Not only does a worldwide audience have access to someone's material, it has the means to easily and quickly "republish" it.

Redistribution of copyrighted content without paying for that content is at the heart of a lawsuit filed by The Associated Press against Meltwater, a company that monitors the media for corporate customers. Recently, the Newspaper Association of America, the New York Times (NYT) and several other newspaper companies filed court papers in support of the AP suit, according to Editor & Publisher (E&P), the well-known newspaper industry trade magazine.

The AP sued Meltwater U.S. Holdings and its Meltwater News Service in U.S. District Court for the Southern District in Manhattan last February, alleging that the company copies AP content and sells it to clients without paying AP licensing fees.

The Times and other companies said their businesses would be jeopardized if Meltwater's activities were allowed to continue. The publishers argue that their websites and other digital businesses that generate revenue through advertising, subscriptions and licensing fees are threatened if other companies can distribute their content without paying licensing fees, E&P reported.

"None of these revenue streams can be sustained if news organizations are unable to protect their news reports from the wholesale copying and redistribution by free-riders like Meltwater," the filing said, according to E&P's report.

AP's supporters argue that Meltwater's service differs from a search engine because it does more than just point users to a location where information can be found, and they say Meltwater's service does not amount to "fair use" because it copies material without alteration, does not aid the public good and damages the market for copyrighted work.

As an AP client, The News-Item joins, at least in spirit, those fighting Meltwater. Within the newsroom, our annual subscription to AP represents one of our largest expenses, even after that cost has been cut almost in half in the past five years through price reductions by AP and changes on our end.

As I did above with E&P, it's not unusual for one media outlet to "borrow" information from another. In fact, it happens regularly with local newspapers, but with an unspoken agreement that complete stories won't be copied and credit will be given to the original source, among other professional considerations. Also, a lot of basic information - mostly game scores and even complete box scores - is shared among neighboring newspapers' sports departments without any need for credit, but with the understanding that the practice must be reciprocal.

There are occasional issues locally with radio stations, which, through the Internet, can have their eyes on our top news stories without so much as having to spend 50 cents for a copy of the paper. In most cases, the material is read with credit, and we get some "free publicity" from it, one could argue. At the same time, as compared to the give-and-take among newspapers, we otherwise get nothing in return from radio news.

On a related note, be sure to read the "Inside the First Amendment" column on this page Monday. The issue of "who owns the news?" is addressed, believe it or not, in the context of the spectacular wreck at Daytona last week that sent car parts into the grandstand - which in turn sent graphic cell phone video footage into the digital airwaves.

(Andy Heintzelman, editor of The News-Item, writes "The Week In News" for each Saturday edition.)

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