Copyright review - A free press must be paid for content

Like any legal bulwark against theft the idea of copyright legislation may seem remote until it is breached.

In Ireland, as in much of the world, copyright legislation has not evolved as quickly as information technology and creative industries — film, music, television, book publishing, IT design, and newspapers — have had to cope with an ever-changing reality that threatens their existence. Work generated through effort, skill, imagination, professionalism, and usually considerable capital investment, is pirated by businesses with no connection to the creative process as a means to win revenue without risk or outlay. This process is hardly different to what we more commonly describe as theft.

The scale of the piracy is astounding. In 2010, while every media company in the country shed jobs and cut costs to the bone, a single search engine operating in Ireland offered around 150,000 newspaper articles that cost publishers an estimated €46.5m to generate. Last year that site offered more than 350,000 articles at a cost equivalent to more than €110m. And all without paying one cent to those who created those articles.

This free-for-all has put Ireland’s 8,600 creative enterprises, the 116,000 jobs involved — some 7.5% of GDP and 6.5% of total employment — under a darkening cloud. Multinational corporations, ironically styling themselves champions of free information having stolen it themselves, pretend that they see nothing wrong with hijacking the work of others. They do this to create entities that exist primarily, in a news context, to deliver rather than generate content. To rub salt into the wound these entities are determined to secure advertising revenue on the back of that snatched news content. This is the very revenue that made the gathering of the news possible in the first place.

Irish copyright laws are being reviewed, as they are across Europe, and new legislation must strengthen copyright law rather than, as Google and other mega corporations argue, liberalise them. Content creators must be paid a fair fee for fair usage by any site that cuts-and-pastes content. This principle must focus on businesses but would have no consequences for those who use this data for private purposes.

In this debate creative industries, especially newspapers, have been categorised as luddite, as being unable to respond to changing technology or how consumers — you — want to get information. Of course this is, to use the kindest word, inaccurate. Newspapers change every day, evolve every week, and must reimagine themselves every few years because they reflect a changing world. Any newspaper that could not has closed. Today every newspaper is working to match its traditional role with a viable online future and copyright legislation, as well as rules governing diversity of media ownership, must support that process rather than hinder it.

One issue that must be resolved is varying Vat rates. If you are reading this in the physical edition you have paid Vat at 9% but all online transactions are subject to Vat at 23%. This anomaly makes the transition to online publishing even more difficult than it already is.

Newspapers do not want or expect special treatment. They do, however, expect payment for content. This simple but essential idea sustains our society and must be reflected in legislation. No other sector is expected to give its product away for nothing so why should those who depend on copyright laws for their protection do so?

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