How The NY Times Hides Behind Copyright Law To Hoard Information And Weaken Its Journalism

from the too-bad dept

In the past couple of years, I’ve tried to be a lot more diligent about putting up primary documents when discussing them in relevant posts. Many of you have certainly noticed the DocStoc or Scribd embeds that I frequently use. This was after talking it over with a few people, who pointed out that giving readers the actual source material was a lot more useful (and after a few snarky “dissenters” suggested that I was “hiding” the real details). I’ve actually found that it’s worked out quite well, with the comments around the actual documents often quite enlightening and informative. These days, I actually get annoyed when I read reports about a lawsuit or some other type of document and the document itself is not available. It makes it that much harder to actually build a real discussion around the topic.

So why is it that so many major news sources don’t post source documents?

Felix Salmon has a long and interesting post about his discussion with the NY Times on this particular topic. Two really interesting points come out of this, neither of which is good:

  1. Many (though, certainly not all) old school journalists come from an era in which they want to hoard the information, and dribble it out, because that’s how journalism used to be. The power was in those who held the information, and the journalist’s role was to just give you what s/he felt you needed, rather than giving you the full download to analyze yourself.
  2. The NY Times and others then uses copyright law as a crutch to explain why they don’t provide source material. They hide behind copyright law, claiming that it opens up too much liability to post certain documents that may be covered by copyright.

The first of these looks bads for those journalists, and speaks to how they haven’t realized how the world has changed, and how their role has changed. The second shows how much copyright law can actively stifle real journalism, by limiting what a reporter can do in providing useful information to the public.

The one big thing I learned from talking to Samson is that when NYT journalists talk about copyright constraints preventing them from putting documents online, they’re not particularly upset about that. In fact, they might secretly be quite happy that there’s no question of posting the document they spent so much effort obtaining. Journalists are human, after all, and can be quite jealous and competitive: they don’t want to simply give the story, on a plate, to their competitors, and will happily sit on documents rather than publishing them if they’re given half a chance to do so. Samson said he couldn’t think of a single instance where a journalist was begging him to be able to publish something and he said no, for copyright reasons.

After all, it’s easy for the NYT to post copyrighted documents if it’s so inclined — it just needs to send them to any one of dozens of organizations who will happily put them online, and then link or embed the document into the story. Or the journalist can just ask their source to go ahead and post the document online, in some anonymous place where it can be linked to or embedded. But that never seems to happen. And even when there’s no copyright at all, as in the case of the Hank Paulson ethics waiver, the NYT went on the record as saying that the reporters “would probably be uncomfortable simply handing over documents” even to one of their colleagues, let alone to the world in general. After all, said Tim O’Brien, an editor there, “they had spent a lot of time and energy to find, analyze, and report on” that document.

This is a rather antiquated view of the information economy these days. It’s a view built on the idea that hoarding information is better than sharing it. In our own experience, that seems to create less valuable results, and for a publication like the NY Times, it seems like a huge waste. No one is saying that giving away the source material takes away from the actual reporting or commentary that happens on top of that. In fact, most people will still find that to be the most valuable part. But sharing the actual source material is an important part of the package.

The other chilling part of Salmon’s conversation with Samson was one of his rationale’s for hiding behind copyright:

“We want our readers to respect intellectual property,” says Samson. “Intellectual property is arguably the biggest asset of this company. We value others’ IP rights, and we want their IP rights to be respected.”

No, your IP is not your biggest asset. The readers and the community you’ve built up is — and if you treat them badly by hoarding information, they might start to go elsewhere. Hiding behind copyright law to provide less valuable reporting is a cheap cop out, that doesn’t befit a news organization of the NY Times’ stature.

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Comments on “How The NY Times Hides Behind Copyright Law To Hoard Information And Weaken Its Journalism”

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Skeptical Cynic (profile) says:

Let people figure out how much info they want.

When you are writing for any audience you should give them all the information they want about the subject and then let them figure out how they need. I have read quite a few articles where I never bothered to give the embedded document because I really did not need that much info. But when I want to know more I am given the option of going on to read more about it.

Ima Fish (profile) says:

The other chilling part of Salmon’s conversation with Samson was one of his rationale’s for hiding behind copyright

Apparently he values Copyright so much that he thinks it should trump the first amendment. That’s exactly what he’s saying. The protection of a possible copyright over a document is more important that the freedom of the press to expose the document.

No... says:

Re: Re:

The first amendment has nothing to do with this.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

None of that is going on here.

Anonymous Coward says:

“No, your IP is not your biggest asset. The readers and the community you’ve built up is” – cause and effect. an empty newspaper with nothing but wire stories and no in depth local reporting would leave them with no readers. it is absolutely stunning that you cannot see the connection between unique, valuable content and dumping ground for everyone elses stuff.

bshock (profile) says:

Re: Re:

How much do you care about what NYT published five years ago? How much do you care about what it published one year ago? How much do you care about what it published last week?

For the vast majority of the public, I’m going to guess that interest in most of NYT’s IP is insignificantly small. Printed newspapers often end up wrapping garbage a day or two after publication.

Readers and community may be the effect of what NYT publishes, but those things derive from the quality of what the paper supplies on an ongoing daily basis, not on its moldy IP.

Unless you’re trying to make that case that NYT’s IP is somehow going to be stolen before readers get a chance at the original output?

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

actually, i am in the middle of reading pj orourkes new book driving like crazy, which is a collection of stories published over the last 40 years or centered around cars. the value of his content is the same today as it was when it was published in the various publications he wrote for. i particularly enjoyed “comeon over to my house, were gonna jump off of the roof”. that story was published roughly 27 years ago. this moldy old ip was good enough for me to part with $14 to read it all and retain a nice copy of it.

so the value of content of a newspaper or magazine is an unknown, except to say it isnt zero. that should be enough.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

the book is brand new, recently released, isbn 978-0-8021-4478-9 for those who wonder. orourke is one of my favorite american commentators, on everything from politics and the economy to cars and various wars around the world. i am not privy to the business deals that he made to be able to publish this books, but i think it is safe to say that permissions had to be obtained or fees paid to the original owners of the ‘work for hire’ that he may have done.

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:3 Re:

So the fact that the articles were all available elsewhere, readable by other means did not reduce your incentive to buy the book, and in fact that these articles already existed elsewhere actually acted as promotion that lead you to buy other products from the author that had values like convenience?

Good to know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:4 Re:

nope, sorry, their presense elsewhere did not have any effect on my desire to read them, only that the author is one of my personal faves. i may have read one or another of those stories in the past, but most of them are not readily available, certainly not combined in this format and not with the various parts that explain the stories.

my purchasing of an orourke book with have everything to do with other books of his i have read, and stories he has written in the past that appears in magazines that i purchase.

not everything comes off the internet, something more teens like yourself dont know.

Modplan (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:5 RtB

Good of you to reconfirm the point, just to make sure. Now I know for definite that the fact that these articles and writings were widely available elsewhere did not reduce and in fact furthered the incentive to buy a book of his, mainly thanks to the addition of other reasons to buy like convenience.

It’s something that more old farts like yourself should know.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

I think making copy privileges last 27 years is much too long and does little to nothing to promote the progress. It has value to IP holders in that it prevents previous work from competing with newer work, especially with out of print/discontinued material, but that hardly promotes the progress. 27 years is entirely too long to grant an unowed privilege that should only be granted to the extent that granting it promotes the progress.

harbingerofdoom (profile) says:

Re: Re:

what IP?
newspapers should not care about IP and should be giving away as much content as possible in order to broaden their subscriber and reader base.

you say its stunning to not realize the value of IP and locking it up, i say its not only stunning but ultimately scary as hell to see anyone such as yourself blinded by the idea that IP trumps all and that the government should have any say whatsoever into an issue that the a free market should correct naturally on its own.

sehlat (profile) says:

Not much new here.

“All the news that’s fit to print.” has always meant “All the news WE think is fit to print.” The Times has a long tradition of suppressing information. For details, check out their fine reporting by Walter Duranty on Stalin’s engineered famine in the Ukraine, surely the most egregious example of “information hoarding” in history.

JNomics (profile) says:


Agreed; the actions of the NY Times are not new (I like to say tired and boring) and their approach is antiquated.

This bit in particular bothers me:

“We want our readers to respect intellectual property,” says Samson. “Intellectual property is arguably the biggest asset of this company. We value others’ IP rights, and we want their IP rights to be respected.”

The question has nothing to do with readers respecting their IP, rather the principle issue is one of permitting subsequent journalistic pieces the freedom to draw from the work of the Times’ writers. We’re talking about derivative works. We’re debating the legitimacy of remix.

The Times position is synonymous with that of other media companies and is mind-numbingly boring, not to mention aggravating. How are we to have any sympathy for their plight in the age of globally-networked-information (i.e.their struggling business models) when their actions seek to limit innovation and perpetuate a broken, non-sharing system?

An important post from Tech Dirt. Thank you.


Steve R. (profile) says:

Its the Proprietary Channel

The reason that newspapers, such as the New York Times, do not link to outside sources has to do with creating a “proprietary channel”, or customer lock-in.

This approach has become a major business practice, look at companies that seek to lock their customers into their product lines. Apple uses a proprietary USB connector and makes it difficult for the user to really have open inter-connectivity. Newspapers, by only providing “internal” links, are essentially mimicking the practice limiting choice for the purpose of locking the consumer into their product universe.

Anonymous Coward says:

“”We want our readers to respect intellectual property,” says Samson. “Intellectual property is arguably the biggest asset of this company. We value others’ IP rights, and we want their IP rights to be respected.” “

So you value IP privileges because you want others to respect IP privileges, not because you think IP privileges are good for society, but only because these privileges are good for you.

Anonymous Coward says:

“”We want our readers to respect intellectual property,” says Samson. “Intellectual property is arguably the biggest asset of this company. We value others’ IP rights, and we want their IP rights to be respected.” ‘

So it’s a do onto others as you would have others do onto you kinda thing.

How about this.

I don’t mind others copying me and would in fact be honored (provided they aren’t mocking me or something), therefore, I see nothing wrong with copying others.

In fact, I wouldn’t have others prevent me from copying them therefore it is wrong for me to prevent others from copying me.

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