Content Wars – Could Meltwater-Versus-AP And UK Papers Spill Over?

You’ll recall the battles between the RIAA and the technology industry over music licensing. Well something similar as been going on regarding how newspaper content is licensed to commercial clippings agencies, and it’s blowing up on both sides of the Atlantic.

The Associated Press today filed suit against Meltwater News for copyright infringement and misappropriation of its breaking news content. The complaint, filed in a New York federal court, alleges that Meltwater U.S. Holding Inc. and its Meltwater News Service, a news clipping service, have been illegally selling unlicensed AP content that competes directly with AP and its customers.

Meanwhile in the UK, there’s been a ruling today which has relevance for how links to newspapers are shared online.

Back in 2010, Meltwater brought the Newspaper Licensing Association (NLA), a for-profit company owned by 1,300 UK newspapers, to court. Meltwater argued that the NLA’s proposed new licensing scheme for online news was unreasonable and prejudiced its customers.

Today the UK’s Copyright Tribunal ruled in a way that means both sides are claiming victory. On the one hand it slashed the NLA’s proposed fees by 90 per cent (worth £100 million) over the next 3 years. Meltwater has claimed that’s a victory. But on the other hand the NLA won a ruling that means that any business which systematically (that last word is important) distributes links to newspaper content will need to have a license from the NLA.

I spoke to the NLA to get a clarification of this and a spokesperson told me that “Ad-hoc forwarding of links in a business environment is fine.” He said the NLA has not changed it’s two year old position on this.

Meltwater, meanwhile, is distributing a press release which implies that the NLA will now be going after users of Google News.

Indeed a rather shrill Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen’s is taking a libertarian line on his blog today: “According to UK courts, tweeting a headline or emailing a colleague a link to an online news article is a breach of copyright if it is done without a copyright license.”

That’s not the case, the NLA told me.

The new licences only cover companies whose business model relies on charging for forwarding links. Google has a different business model to this. Companies systematically (that word again) forwarding links sourced directly or through a free aggregator like Google, within their business, should be licensed. Existing NLA licenses will automatically incorporate this right from January 2010 with no extra charge.

So, it seems the social media mob can put down the pitchforks as there is no plans to extend NLA licensing to apply to private individuals who simply share a link to a UK newspaper article on social networks. Indeed, the NLA says they positively encourage this. It’s when it’s done systematically – as Meltwater does – that they take an interest.

Meltwater is a closed system sold only to subscribers for a fee. It’s therefore monetising the content which others produce without the costs of hiring journalists produce it. I guess that’s the new world huh.

It is of course in the interests of Meltwater to widen this into a public debate about how private individuals share content, but their points are not without merit. There are a lot of ‘systematic’ news apps out there which may well find they fall within the bounds of this new ruling.