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Dublin: 10 °C Friday 24 October, 2014

Column: Newspapers are seeking to outlaw the free exchange of ideas

Solicitor Simon McGarr writes on Women’s Aid, NNI and newspaper linking – an issue you can read about pretty much everywhere, except for in a newspaper.

Simon McGarr

IRELAND HAS A newspaper problem.

All the members of the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI) – as well as dozens of other regional newspapers – have agreed a common position. They say that they own rights in links to newspaper websites. They say they can set the prices for those links. The price list they’ve supplied starts at €300 every year for one link and goes up to  €1,250 for up to 50 links on a site. You’ll be glad to hear they say the price for more than 50 links is negotiable.

You might have seen a link ridiculing this position from Graham Linehan on Twitter, or on tech megasite BoingBoing.com. Perhaps you follow international Professors of Journalism like Jay Rosen of NYU or Jeff Jarvis of CUNY or George Brock of London City University and saw them express their astonishment?

Alternatively you might have heard about the story from the New York Observer, or the Guardian, or Techcrunch , or TechDirt, or MediaGazer or Forbes or any of the other news sources which covered the story.

You might even have read the letters – here and here - or our article about it on McGarr Solicitors’ website.

The one place you won’t have read about the Irish newspapers’ demands is in an Irish newspaper. Nor will you have read about the fact that the NNI, representing all the national newspapers – including the Irish Times, the Irish Independent and the Examiner – sought in 2012 to have a specific new law created to outlaw linking to articles. You won’t have read it, because not one Irish newspaper printed a drop of ink on this story. Kardashian Baby? News. Efforts to outlaw how the internet works? Not news.

On those efforts, here’s what the NNI looked for in the middle of 2012:

NNI proposes that, in fact, any amendment to the existing copyright legislation with regard to deep-linking should specifically provide that deep-linking to content protected by copyright…is unlawful.” – Section 7 National Newspapers of Ireland Further Submission to the Copyright Review Committee

The fact that any such law would effectively destroy the structure of the web in Ireland appears not to matter to the newspapers. If I cannot link to any site I wish without first getting either permission or buying a licence at €300 a link, I won’t be doing a lot of linking. A web without links is just a lot of unconnected documents. Or, if you prefer, a bit like a newspaper.

The fact that the NNI are looking for this law to be brought in is an implicit admission that there is no such statutory regime in place right now to justify their demands for money from my client, Women’s Aid.

Yes, that’s right. Women’s Aid. A charity to assist women who are victims of domestic violence. They had linked to some newspaper articles that had dealt with their fundraising efforts. They were contacted by the newspaper’s Licensing organisation, called Newspaper Licensing Ireland. They were told:

A licence is required to link directly to an online article even without uploading any of the content directly onto your own website.

Then they were sent the price list, above.

McGarr Solicitors agreed to act for Women’s Aid pro bono and then exchanged letters with the newspapers’ agent. We wanted to know what the statutory basis for that claim was.

Despite writing back three times, the newspapers’ rep never cited the statutory basis for the assertion that links required either permission or a licence.

‘The silence has spoken volumes’

Which brings us up-to-date and leaves us with that newspaper problem I mentioned at the start. Because, you see, this is news now only because McGarr Solicitors – who on an average day are mostly just representing people hurt in road accidents or injured at work – had access to Twitter and a website to tell our client’s story.

What should have happened was that professional print journalists would turn their attention to the behaviour of their own industry in an adult manner.

After all, it is an article of faith in reputable journalism that the Commercial side of a newspaper will never be allowed to dictate or interfere with the Editorial side.

The silence has spoken volumes.

Newspapers should be committed to giving a space for all of society’s voices to be heard. Instead they have inverted that role and are seeking to outlaw the free exchange of ideas and information. It is shameful.

You’ll notice that I haven’t linked to the Irish Independent, the Irish Times or the Irish Examiner in this article. That is because those newspapers sent legal letters to TheJournal.ie in 2011 telling them they were not allowed to link to articles on their sites.

That is a taste of the internet our newspapers would like to see imposed on everyone in Ireland.

Like I say, Ireland has a newspaper problem.

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