This is the text of a "letter" I sent to the editor of the Irish Times on the 26th January, 2019. It wasn't published. It is now. For anyone who reads this blog – if there is anyone at all – the pitch might seem simplistic. This is because I was seeking to make the point to those who would not have technical backgrounds, who would not be familiar with the context, or who are focussed on other issues and are not aware of the discussion (or a combination of all the above). Also, I have simply removed the greeting and the sign-off; everything else below is what it is the letter, so it still reads like a letter to the editor.
Despite clear evidence to the contrary, many of the pre-internet industries believe that bigger, broader, harder copyright is the only way to compete with the internet.
Through Article 11 of the EU Copyright directive, EU-based publishers are seeking to escalate this to the point where cutting off one's nose to spite one's face would be considered a mere flesh-wound.
Article 11 will place a charge on the use of "snippets" by news aggregation services. The largest news aggregator out there – the bogeyman used to promote Article 11 – is Google News. Google News has recently said it is considering pulling out of the EU altogether if Article 11 is included. This is no idle threat.
In 2013, Germany passed a similar law, and Google delisted some publications to avoid accusation of copyright infringement. The resulting loss of inbound traffic prompted the publishers to grant a free licence to Google. In 2014, having learned the lesson, Spain passed a similar law, but made the granting of free licences illegal. So, Google News pulled out of Spain altogether; significantly reducing traffic to the publications' sites. The law also caused a number of local aggregation services to close down, resulting in the loss of jobs.
Article 11 seeks to apply a similar regime across Europe, with no regard for the failure of similar, recent efforts within the EU.
A publisher can use existing technical measures – such as the "robots.txt" standard – to prevent their works being accessible through aggregators that don't have a licence. If an aggregator doesn't want to pay for such a licence, as should be its right, it can decide not to carry links to those publications' services.
What the publishers should neither demand, nor get, is the traffic that comes from the aggregation services (so they can earn their own revenue) as well as payment from those services for the privilege of sending that traffic.
Another lesson from Spain, though, is something that should be of concern. Google News is doing just fine. However, a study conducted in 2015 by the Spanish Association of Publishers of Periodical Publications, found that while all publications suffered, the smaller, less well known publications were disproportionally affected; without aggregation services, internet users would just go to the better-known brands for their news.
Is this something that EU publishers look forward to? Larger publishers will be resilient to a significant drop in traffic if aggregation is effectively abolished in the EU. Will the smaller, local publishers? Have those publishers looked objectively into the whole effect Article 11 will have on their abilities to gather and report news?
The internet is here to stay. In the long term, publications and publishers will have to reconcile themselves to this fact and take advantage of it. The EU Copyright Directive with Articles 11 and 13 will not stop the internet being used, but has the potential to severely damage it for everyone, and one continues to wonder whether this is not by design.
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