"Fair use" and the blogsphere

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There has been a little dust up recently in the blogsphere. Apparently last week, the Associated Press went after the Drudge Report for posting extensive quotes from AP stories. By the end of the week, AP had backed off a bit and is now in the process of coming up with a policy. As the New York Times reports:

The A.P.’s effort to impose some guidelines on the free-wheeling blogosphere, where extensive quoting and even copying of entire news articles is common, may offer a prominent definition of the important but vague doctrine of “fair use,” which holds that copyright owners cannot ban others from using small bits of their works under some circumstances.

As regular readers have noticed, this blog uses extensive quotes. My purpose is not to simply report what other people are saying - but to use those remarks to underscore and illustrate larger points. That is considered the heart of the "fair use" doctrine in copyright law. Many blogs use extensive quotes in this way. But many others are simply sending on a piece of information -- implicitly or explicitly saying "read this -- this is important."

The tension in the latter case is between the free flow of information and the free-rider economic problem. News reporting has always been bedeviled by both. Many news stories will spread from outlet to outlet -- but with credit given to the original source, e.g. a TV or radio news broadcast or email starting with "the New York Times reports that . . .” On the other hand, aggregators services with just pass along other sources reporting can be free-riders: they get the advertising benefits without having to actually paid the cost of unearthing the story. Without someone paying for the actual journalistic effort, it is not clear that effort will continue. Already, major news organizations are cutting back on their staffs.

There may be a new form of reporting emerging out of the blogsphere. An open source/wiki model may emerge. The problem there is issue of verification and trust. The loss of Tim Russert is a grim reminder of the importance of trust in reporting.

But the reporting of his death is also a lesson on the verification system. The story was first broken by the New York Post -- or at least I first saw it on the blog DCist which was linked to the New York Post story. No other news source was running a story - including NBC. Shortly thereafter, the New York Times ran the story with confirmation from the family. Then every other news organization picked it up.

As the information tide turns into an information tsunami, the role of filters and aggregators will grow. How many times have you gotten an email story from a friend that sounds a little strange or just too cute? My first reaction is to check with one of the many "urban myth" websites. It may be that our trusted news sources turn into verifiers as opposed to original reporters.

That model will, however, leave the job of original reporting to the blogsphere. In that case, AP may find itself on the other side of the fair use question -- as a user of someone else's information rather than a producer of that information. Setting up a solid policy on information sharing -- which goes beyond the concept of "fair use" -- will be that much more important. Such are the emerging rules for the I-Cubed Economy.

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Update on the Russert annoucement - from Link by Link - Delaying News in the Era of the Internet - NYTimes.com:

Long before Mr. Russert’s death was reported on air, however, it was flashing across the Internet via the text-messaging service Twitter and the online encyclopedia Wikipedia.

So, in this case, I was wrong to say that the news organizations served as a filter. Apparently, Mr. Russert's Wikipedia entry was updated/edited before either the New York Post, the New York Times or the NBC announcement.

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