Times for Enforcing Copyright

by on January 10, 2005

Glenn Reynolds (a.k.a. “Instapundit”) reports that the New York Times may start requiring readers of its website to pay for that privilege. I’ve got not objection to that as a general matter; I’m no copyright commie. But I’m not sure I’d welcome the probable consequences.

Prof. Reynolds predicts, “the Times would lose a lot of influence if it made this move, since it would only be talking to the true believers.” Perhaps so. I’d have to see some figures about how much of the Times’ readership reaches it only via the web before I’d put money on that prediction.

I will risk this prediction, however: The Times would start wielding copyright law against pesky bloggers. In the past, the Times has published editorials and stories somewhat sympathetic to copyright reform. Consider, though, what would happen if it started charging for access to its website.

Even if the move to “cyber$space” would ultimately reduce the Times’ influence, as Prof. Reynolds predicts, it would not do so overnight. Many bloggers would thus continue to regard the online Times as an important resource. Yet only a fraction of them would agree to pay for online access to the Times.

Those few bloggers who do agree to pay for access would thereby face a great temptation to republish great chunks of the Times’ text, since doing so would bring them the one thing bloggers love most: readers. Under the Times’ new business model, however, each of those readers would represent a lost potential customer. Why sign up to read the Times’ site if you can get the best bits via your favorite blog?

The Times would thus have a powerful financial incentive to start cracking down on the unauthorized reproduction of its online stories. And, given that it will have many defendants to choose from, it will probably favor going after those that not only copy but criticize it. Granted, bloggers who quote the Times in the course of commenting on it will have triable fair use defenses. But how many will want to put that defense to the test in court? Most will quickly cave under the superior firepower of the Times’ attorneys.

Some stalwart bloggers will of course resist the newly proprietary Times. Some of those will even beat it. That, however, will simply convince the Times that it must fight unauthorized copying not only in court, but also in Congress. The Times, which has long smiled on relaxing copyright’s grip on the flow of information, might thus become an ardent proponent of stronger, broader, and meaner copyright laws.

[Crossposted at Agoraphilia.]

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