Within the new industry, news agencies fill the role of the objective gathers of facts. Agencies like DPA, AFP or ANP collect information and make them available to publishing companies who sometimes publish the information as is, but mostly use the information that they get from the agencies as an ingredient for their own reporting. Journalists rely on news agencies to confirm the accuracy of information they use in their reporting.
The heads of 8 major European news agencies have now entered the discussion about the ancillary publishers right for press publishers, via an open letter published in Wednesday’s edition of the French daily Le Monde (paywalled french language version here). They have done so taking the side of those press publishers who advocate for this right. The letter is a frontal attack on online platforms (Facebook and Google in particular) whom they accuse of profiting from hyperlinking to online new publications that are based on information gathered by the news agencies:
[The platforms] offer internet users the work done by others, the news media, by freely publishing hypertext links to their stories.
What is remarkable here is that the news agencies’ letter explicitly singles out hyperlinking as the mechanism that should be the target of the ancillary right for press publishers. While we and others such as the eponymous Save the Link campaign have argued for a long time that an ancillary copyright would threaten the ability to freely link to online resources, and thus break one of the fundamental building blocks of the internet, the press publishers have gone to great length to pretend that this is not the case.
Publishersright.eu, the lobby platform set up by the EU press and news publishers associations contains a “mythbuster” section that proclaims that the publishers right “is not a link tax”, will “not break the internet”, and will not “be used to block access to publishers] content” (the last one stands in direct contruy7 [adiction to this statement by Prof. Höppner—one of the few academic proponents of the right). In the same vein the European Publishers Council is proclaiming (complete with animated GIF) that “the link is safe” and that the publishers right will lead to “more links”.
Unfortunately for these self appointed “mythbusters” the news agencies seem to have missed the memo and made it clear that the right is indeed an attempt to break the freedom to link. While this could be filed away as a simple communication mistake, the news agencies reveal a much deeper truth: It doesn’t really matter what the proponents of a new right claim with regards to how it will be used. Once a new right exists rights holders are incentivised to make maximum use of the new right. The statements from the news agencies and Prof Höppner make it clear that this will include attempts to charge for linking to and blocking access to content.
As we have argued before, strengthening the position of press publishers (and journalists) does not require a new separate right which would likely be abused to impede the access to information and to break the internet. Instead the position of press publishers vis a vis abusive practices could be achieved by a legal presumption that press publishers are entitled to enforce the rights over the works or other subject matter that are licensed to them. This is the approach that was proposed by former MEP Comodini in the draft report of the European Parliament’s legal affairs committee and is one of the two options currently discussed among the member states in the Council.
This week’s intervention by the news agencies is a powerful reminder that handing out new rights is the wrong approach to the problem.