Wherein The Copia Institute Tells The Copyright Office That Link Taxes Are A Good Idea Only If You Want To Kill Off Journalism
from the world's-worst-ideas dept
It’s hard to believe that even after the huge disaster “link taxes” have been in Europe and Australia that people would push to have them in the United States, and yet here we are. This brewing bad idea has some foolish friends in Congress, who tasked the Copyright Office with doing a study on the viability of importing this nonsense into American law, and via our already over-encumbered copyright law. The Copia Institute filed a public comment as part of this study and provided testimony at a hearing in December. In both, we pointed out that a site like Techdirt is exactly the sort of small, independent media outlet such a scheme is supposed to help yet is instead exactly the sort of small, independent media outlet such a scheme most definitely would hurt.
While some of its advocates insist it is not actually a “link tax” being proposed, and instead something fancier-sounding (“ancillary copyright”), the inevitable result will be equally ruinous to the very journalistic interests this scheme is ostensibly supposed to advance by destroying the very thing they all ultimately depend on: the ability to connect to audiences. It will have this effect because the whole point of this scheme is to attack the platforms and services that currently have the nerve to help them make that connection by linking to these media sites. After all, the thinking apparently goes, how dare these platforms and services deliver media outlets this valuable audience attention without paying for the privilege of getting to do them this enormous favor?
The defects of this plan to essentially tax the platforms and services that provide media outlets with this critical benefit are significant. For example, it completely offends the goals and purpose of both copyright law and the First Amendment, which exist to help ensure that information and ideas can spread. It offends it by design, by deliberately creating a regulatory regime that punishes the platforms and services that facilitate this spread. It also offends the First Amendment more specifically in how it targets the expressive freedom of the platforms and services themselves to refer people to others? expression.
It is also completely at odds with its own professed goal. These platforms and services are giving media outlets everything they ever said they wanted: audience attention. Yet now these outlets would bite the hand that feeds, and for no good reason. Because even to the extent that this scheme is predicated on the idea of helping journalistic enterprises make more money, it will have the exact opposite effect. No media outlet makes money without an audience. You can?t profit from audience attention if there is no attention. And there won?t be any attention with schemes like this obstructing platforms and services from connecting media outlets and their expression to those audiences.
As we?ve seen in other countries, schemes like these have starved media outlets of their audience lifeblood by effectively unlinking them from the world. It has this effect in part because it deters the platforms and services that currently drive traffic to media outlets from being in the drive-traffic-to-media-outlets business anymore by making it way too expensive to do. Sure, with a scheme like this maybe some of the big platforms (Google News, Facebook) might suck it up and pay into the system (although, given what happened in Spain and Australia, when they each at various points refused to continue to do business there in the face of these sorts of schemes, perhaps they wouldn?t). But given all the gnashing and wailing, even at this hearing, that Google and Facebook have too much power, it would make sense to make sure that there could be other platforms and service competitors to Google and Facebook. The more the big ones are resented for driving traffic to other sites the more important it is that it be possible for other platforms and services to be able to exist to do it instead.
Yet that diversity in audience-facilitating services is exactly what compulsory licensing schemes like this one foreclose by inordinately exploding the cost of doing business for anyone who might want to build a platform or service capable of referring audiences to other sites. Those costs don?t just come from the money itself needed to pay into the licensing system but also the potentially massive compliance costs associated with not running afoul of such a scheme?s inevitably technical rules and also any defense costs involved with trying to avoid costly liability should someone accuse the service of not complying with those rules quite right. (As we wrote in our comment, the compulsory licensing system for music webcasters illustrates how hugely and deterrently expensive the costs of complying with a compulsory licensing systems like this proposed one can be.)
And deterring these platforms and services it isn?t going to do anything to make online journalism more profitable. For one thing, it in no way targets any of the reasons why it may not be profitable, to the extent that?s even the case. After all, if distant corporate owners would prefer to starve local newsrooms in favor of skimming off profits, that?s not a failure of copyright law that?s causing the decline of local news. It?s not even a failure of any particular journalistic profit model.
But to the extent that the news business is legitimately under strain, schemes like these don’t alleviate that strain because it was not the absence of this sort of ancillary right that caused any of the underlying problems in the first place. More likely culprits hurting the news business are things such as media consolidation, corporate governance models that emphasize quick profits over good journalism, advertising models that are offensive to user privacy, poor site design that doesn?t retain readers’ attention, and even paywalls and terrible site design that deliberately repel readership. It would make a lot more sense to correct these actual issues, or at least leave everyone free to innovate better monetization models if they are what?s needed for media outlets to flourish as the economically sustainable entities we want them to be. Instead a scheme like this just papers over the actual problems and by throwing more copyright at everything creates all sorts of chilling new ones that now everyone will have to cope with, no matter how contrary to their expressive or economic interests.
Because it WILL hurt them. It will suppress the reach of every media outlet’s expression, and with it also their ability to profit from that reach. And it will hurt them this way without delivering any economic return, probably not to anyone but especially not to the smaller, independent outlets. Compulsory licensing systems are often profoundly inequitable, directing most of the money to big incumbent players and very little to the smaller creatives in the “longtail” of the money distribution chart. (Again, see the webcasting compulsory license for an example of this dynamic.) Furthermore, to the extent that some larger media outlets may envision doing special licensing deals with the big platforms like Google and Facebook, which they think they?ll be able to strike in the extortive shadow of a scheme like this, it would still leave everyone else, especially the smaller, independent media outlets without that bargaining power, in even more trouble than they are already in now.
Especially when such a scheme will meanwhile make it impossible to monetize audience attention that platforms and services are no longer legally able to freely deliver to them, unless these platforms and services spend a ton of money to comply with this scheme or be willing to risk infringement liability. By chilling these platforms and services it will destroy the Internet ecosystem these media outlets depend on to get that audience attention in the first place. And as a result it will diminish the diversity of independent journalistic voices, who will inevitably fade into unvisited obscurity. You almost couldn?t invent a better system to destroy independent media if you tried.
And that is in large part because, as it became clear in the hearing, this proposed scheme ultimately has little to do with actually supporting the economics of journalism writ large. Instead what emerged from the hearing was a perverse sense of entitlement, where some news outlets were arguing that if any audience-facilitating service happened to make money from the exercise of directing audience traffic to them, then this was somehow money that they were entitled to. This scheme only makes sense as a policy designed to pick the pocket of any business that happens to provide any audience facilitating service and is clearly built on a sense of resentment that anyone else might ever in any way profit from linking to someone else’s expression, even when it still provides a symbiotic benefit to the media outlet behind the expression by helping it connect to its own audience. Not content to let this generous goose continue to lay all this economic opportunity on their doorstep, advocates of this scheme would rather use regulation like this to slaughter it in the misguided effort to grab up the imagined riches it greedily thinks such a scheme would magically reveal, irrespective how foolishly destructive such efforts would actually be to everyone.