Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Truth as Private Property

Hostilities between the Associated Press and bloggers are escalating to the point that some are now vowing to stop linking to the wire service. Regardless of the merits, such conflict is unhealthy for the free flow of information in a society that depends on it.

As a part of traditional media, AP regards its output as property without distinguishing between form and substance. The arrangement of words and sentences in its reports belongs to the agency, but the news conveyed does not. The facts and public statements therein, once published, belong to everyone. "Published" literally means "making public"

Bloggers, regardless of where their information comes from, have the right to analyze and comment on news without restriction. What they may not have the right to do is cut and paste large chunks of AP stories, as some do, and add their reactions which, in some cases, amount to no more than "Oh, wow!" in either a positive or negative sense.

Even before the Internet, on-the-spot reporting was only a fraction of what MSM did. TV news often piggybacked on newspaper reporting, and magazines got most of their ideas and leads from daily news. In the future, with news bureaus being cut back for economic reasons, that will be truer than ever.

Those of us who spent a working lifetime dealing with copyrighted material have no formula for where "fair use" ends and theft begins. But context is important. If a blog post is using AP material as a taking-off point for commentary or to illustrate a point, that's "fair use," and a word count formula can't be the only criterion.

For example, if this post were legally copyrighted, fair use would be characterizing it, quoting from it and expressing views but not just lifting most of it without creating some new piece of writing. But the exhilarating thing about blogging is that such property considerations are beside the point.

Beyond that, the real puzzlement in this debate is defining what damage AP believes results from having bloggers quote from its output by linking to the media that are legally using it. In what way does it devalue the product or damage those legal users? In fact, don’t they benefit from getting more traffic to their web sites?

But, all that aside, the larger issue is that, in a free society, it's not a good idea to start treating the truth as private property.

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