The internet’s Wild West Show and how it pertains to journalism

In Uncategorized on July 13, 2008 at 4:30 pm

Welcome to the July Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Doug Fisher of Common Sense Journalism.

Doug posed a question about the future of media law and how it pertains to journalism. My response here focuses on copyright and Fair Use, and how I think laws will relax when it comes to posting other people’s work on the internet. While I deal specifically with photos and writing, I think the same is true of audio and video content.

When the first newspapers appeared in the U.S., it wasn’t uncommon for editors and publishers to take famous poems, essays, and articles and even articles from competitors and dump them on their publications’ pages. As journalists, we like to bring up the rich, ethical tradition of journalism and talk about the internet and popular culture in less than glowing terms, but the truth is media ethics has always been a malleable, changing entity. And, the internet is bringing back a Wild West, outlaw mentality that, at best brings an innovative bent to a struggling industry and at worst hearkens back to days of blatant plagiarism and yellow journalism. At the same time, it’s making us accountable for our actions to a degree never seen before.

In a way, it’s best to see the internet as a foreign country where people from every other country come to work and play. I think this is how it will soon be seen in legal terms. The internet will be a tax free and free speech zone where ideas and content are exchanged. Because the online world has permeated every nation on earth, it is impossible, say, for the U.S. to make the rules for what someone in India is doing on the internet just as it’s impossible for the Chinese government to decide what kind of commerce a British citizen can take part in.

The internet should remain a place where everyone, from celebrities to the kid down the street, has the freedom to publish and sell their ideas. I think the biggest changes, when it comes to the law, will be in copyright and Fair Use. The days when publications (now think blogs and websites) take the words of other people and dump them on their own pages are back, and we should accept this.

I’m not saying we should let our words be published under another writer’s name; thanks to the web it’s almost impossible for someone to get away with this. However, we have to start making allowances for people who take our content and post it with our names and URLs attached. If we do our jobs and write interesting articles and editorials, those two digital compromises will equal more page views and readers for us, even if the audience turns back to the site that took our content at the end of the day.

The digital world can bring people of similar mindsets together in a way never seen before. It’s time to stop guarding our content with a shotgun in hand, waiting for someone to run off with our words. It’s a double-edged sword for both parties; if you write a blog you know how easy it is to grab a chunk of text and a few photos, and how easy it is for the originators of those words and pictures to hunt you down if they don’t want you using their media.

It’s time to relax and ride out the webstorm. There are only two questions you need to ask yourself if you find your work on another webspace: “Do readers know I made this, and can they find me?” If the answer to both is yes, then sit back and wait for increased views. If not, then start using our current legal system to your advantage.

  1. Very thought provoking and spot on. I’m always surprised to see where my content ends up.

    I say that as soon as some litigious person decides to attempt to make money from unauthorized use of a photo or other copyrightable material, rules may be forthcoming, limiting use of photos and/or content. Before that happens, it’d be nice to add a new amendment: Freedom of the Internet.

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