A Free Press Needs to Be Expensive

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As a follow-up to my last post, I see that the Electronic Frontier Foundation has (not surprisingly) also accused the News Media Alliance (NMA) of petitioning the incoming administration to “weaken fair use doctrine” and, by extension, threaten press freedom itself.  Granted, in contrast to Mike Masnick’s ad hominem style on Techdirt, when EFF obfuscates, they usually write a more sober, mature-sounding article, but readers should not be mesmerized by the parlor trick.  Because they’re still not telling the whole truth.

At a time when Americans are suddenly realizing that professional journalism may be more important—and more under siege—than ever, both citizens and advocacy groups like EFF should remember that good journalism is expensive.  If we don’t want news to devolve entirely to the glib gotchas of Twitter, then somebody has to invest in the reporters, researchers, editors, etc. who develop the skills and experience to cover stories with integrity.  In order to make those investments possible, to say nothing of profitable, publishers have to retain the right to protect and exploit the products of this labor through distribution models of their choosing.  So, while fair use doctrine is unequivocally necessary for journalism, this reality is not in conflict with the need for news publishers to protect their copyright interests at the same time.

Frankly, in light of the fact that the anti-copyright policies advocated by EFF and similar organizations have played a substantial role in creating information havoc, like the fake news problem, I think when it comes to the press, these groups ought to be rubbing gravel in their hair—or at least sent to their rooms to think about what they’ve done. Years of blind—and greedy—advocacy of anything goes under the ambit of the First Amendment is a major reason why real journalists have to compete with bogus ones,  and why news organizations continue to have their investments threatened by various platforms and tech interests that appropriate their work.

In the EFF’s version of accusing the NMA of trying to weaken the fair use doctrine, they  set up a straw man and then point to a bunch of unrelated “evidence” to support the accusation.  As stated in my last post, the NMA’s white paper does not seek any revision to the fair use principle, but it does call into question the relatively recent, broadening interpretation of the “transformative” standard within fair use analyses.  The EFF article might give readers the impression that this standard is a well-grounded and longstanding legal principle, but that simply isn’t the case.

If we bracket the “transformative” standard between the first major application in Campbell (1994) and the most high-profile, current case, Google Books (2016), we see that we’re dealing with two very different meanings of the word “transformative.” ”Transformativeness” in Campbell entails a use to create a new expression while “transformativeness” in Google Books entails a use to create a new service that is not an expression. While both uses can be valuable, and even described colloquially as “transformative,” it is misleading to suggest that the case law in which this standard has been applied is consistent, given the divergent meanings of the term.

It is the application of the latter standard that is of concern to many rights holders, including news publishers. This is because the latter interpretation substantially alters the original intent of fair use, which is to favor the First Amendment, to a more generalized standard of “creating some new thing,” which may not be a form of expression at all. It is also worth noting that most uses by journalists have always been protected by fair use principles that existed prior to the introduction of the “transformative” standard by Pierre Leval in his 1990 Harvard Law Review paper.

The truly insidious part of this story is that the EFF has been directly responsible for morphing fair use doctrine in both the courts and the court of public opinion.  With its decade-long boondoggle in Lenz v UMG, and its chronic implication that fair use is the antithesis of copyright (rather than an important component of copyright), the EFF fails to recognize that its advocacy in this regard can be more harmful to free expression and a free press than the concerns it claims to address.  While the organization defends the role of aggregators and other platforms that make uses of works they did not author, the EFF ignores some of the very negative results of this policy, which have become starkly manifest in recent weeks.

For instance, the violent assaults on a Washington, DC pizzeria as the consequence of fake news is not exclusively a story about criminal instigators and idiot readers. It is symptomatic of a disease caused when serious journalism is given equal footing with the ravings of every crackpot or miscreant with a keyboard.  This trend has been toxic for the press, and it is naive to think that defending every use and every expression on First Amendment grounds has not been an aggravating factor in this case.

In some instances, news aggregators do not merely provide access to news, but they often strip news of context or substance by repackaging segments in a manner that may be good for driving traffic but do disservice to the goals of journalism.   Press freedom is utterly meaningless unless we support a professional press, and the News Media Alliance is correct to observe that relatively recent distortions of the fair use principle have played a role in threatening that professionalism.

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