Covering Politics in Cyberspace

April 19, 2007

Fair Use and Copyright on the Web

Butch Ward’s ethics-themed session (which included the conferences first break-out sessions—2 of ‘em) i was struck by how helpful it is to be reminded of the moral and ethical issues journalists face on a regular basis. It’s often striking to note that the same rules and laws, from libel to copyright, apply online as they do in print. Until copyright laws are updated to reflect the Internet’s spirit of sharing, everything that is posted online is copyrighted by default. In backwards fashion, one must be *proactive* to indicate that sharing/lifting/reprinting of content, videos and photos is acceptable and *not* all rights are reserved.

The attitude of many publishers towards the Web, no thanks to Google/YouTube, is—“if it’s not fair use, what, are we gonna get sued?” And when a takedown notice comes through, the image, video, or other content is removed and usually the conflict is resolved. In other instances, however, a photographer is completely entitled to send a bill to a for-profit publication or organization that uses a photo or video without the creators permission. In the old days of print, I believe they called it “plagiarism.”

There are exceptions, of course. When user-generated content (UGC) is submitted through a module or service that requires agreeing to terms (i.e. checking a box without realizing what exactly you’re doing), the original producer of the content typically often signs off their rights completely on a non-exclusive basis.

In the case of Jamal Albarghouti’s infamous cellphone video of the Virginia Tech shootings, CNN contacted Albarghouti minutes after his submission was received to negotiate exclusive rights (for an undisclosed sum. Surely the creator was aware of the key terms and the key opening clause—submitting content meant no payment from CNN or its affiliates in exchange, automatically, for “a non-exclusive, perpetual, worldwide license to edit, telecast, rerun, reproduce, use, syndicate, license, print,  sublicense, distribute…” (emphasis mine). Yahoo!/Reuters YouWitness News has similar terms, as do other sites, although to see a YouTube “exclusive” on CNN would probably be a first. In other words, no other UGC provider likely had the breadth of worldwide video distribution outlets (and cash) as did CNN (a Time-Warner company).

I wonder if any outlet has ever “bluffed” a claim of exclusive rights to user-generated content and/or how competitors could confirm the nature of their exclusive arrangement, but then again, the distortion of the term “exclusive” (not to mention “breaking news”) throughout the media is for another blog post / conference.

How do you know what you can post and what *might* get you in trouble? I use a Creative commons license or badge to indicate content that I’m happy to share for non-commercial use with proper attribution. In other instances, I’ll gladly accept cash or PayPal. NowPublic, AP’s UGC partner, was friendly enough to send me a message via flickr asking permission to use CC-licensed photos of mine on a couple occasions. Is a CC license legit? Well, your work is copyrighted whether or not you ever file or register a copyright and—after only 5 years of operation, there are over 140 million pages with CC licenses. Where can you find CC-licensed content? They’ve got a search tool.


* C-SPAN’s CC-style license.
* BBC’s Creative Archive Licence Group.
* Poynter’s David Shedden’s guide to copyright & fair use.

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This blog was written by speakers, fellows, and student reporters who attended the Knight Digital Media Center Election '08: Covering Politics in Cyberspace seminar.

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