Links are the lifeblood of the internet. Here’s some mud for your lifeblood.

The Irish Times has continued to engage… somewhat… in the “URLs can/can’t be copyrighted and we do/do not want you to link to us” debacle.

This time they’ve rolled out Johnny Ryan (Twitter: @johnnyryan), who is “chief innovation officer of The Irish Times and author of A History of the Internet and the Digital Future (2010).”  In an article titled “Links are the lifeblood of the internet”, he muddies the waters even while claiming we should keep things clear.

Ryan’s opinion piece makes several claims.  He says:

“However, mere linking of irishtimes.com content is not at issue.”

and

“Conflating the unlicensed reproduction of content with the mere use of urls is drawing attention from the key issues of the copyright debate.”

Unfortunately, it is Ryan and the Irish Times themselves who are conflating the issues, not anyone else.

This is not about copying or reproduction of content. It is about linking to articles with a bare URL, as I did above.

What is needed is simple:

  • The Irish Times needs to state clearly and simply and with an official hat on (rather than on Twitter where “views are my own” or in an opinion piece!) that anyone – individual or commercial – may link to their content because a URL is not copyrightable, not because the Irish Times is giving them permission or waiving some hypothetical licence requirement.
  • They also need to use whatever structures are in place – whether that’s an EGM or board meeting or whatever – to inform NNI of this and to seek to have them, and the other owners/members of NNI recognise reality.  Because the NNI operates the NLI, and both are still saying that “a licence is required to an online article even without uploading any of the content.”  And the NNI is lobbying to have this made law!
  • They need to get the NNI/NLI to apologise to and make a donation to Women’s Aid.

In the longer term, they may want to consider the wisdom of employing what seems to be a single-purpose company, Cullen Communications, as what appears to be the only people “working” in/for both the NNI and NLI.  Because their communication skills to date seem somewhat lacking.

In fairness to the Irish Times, they are at least engaging, however disingenuously.  So, too, did the Sunday Business Post yesterday.  I won’t link to their article because, y’know, it’s behind a firewall – the option open to anyone who doesn’t want the public, or Google, or whoever, linking to them…

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Long, slow commercial suicide

Update @ 18:00: The Irish Times argues out of both sides of its mouth, as it says

“We recognise that linking is the lifeblood of the online world and we encourage our digital community to share links as widely as possible. Therefore, The Irish Times does not see links as copyrightable and will not attempt to impose any restrictions on the posting elsewhere on the Internet of mere URLs that refer to its content.”

Yay!  But wait, there’s more.  It also says in the very same press release that it supports

 “the NNI position that copyright over newspaper content should be protected.”

And NNI are the crowd who lobbied government in summer 2012 to have links declared copyrightable…

Well – at least the Irish Times has adopted a public position, even if it’s a contradictory, illogical and indefensible one.  Nothing at all from any of the other print media outlets…

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Update @ 14:30: But the NNI misses the opportunity to say “Oops, yeah, dunno what the NLI (the other organisation using this same Ballsbridge address) that we own were thinking.  Look, we’ll tell them to cop the hell on.  Sorry about that.”

Instead, they release a statement (on the horrible mess of a website designed by Cullen Communications, the PR agency that also shares the same Ballsbridge address with NNI and NLI) saying “Look, leave us alone.  You’re misrepresenting us. You bullies.  We never meant individuals. And… it’s confusing.  But you’re wrong, and the law is on our side, even though it can’t be because we’re still looking to have it changed to say that we’re allowed charge you for weblinks like we’re trying to do already!  Signed: Ludd”

Hmm. Wait a second. Do they own copyright on that link I just posted…?

Yeah. Looks like it’s time for a boycott…

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Update @ 14:15: And after Simon McGarr (@Tupp_Ed) appeared on Morning Ireland, Hugh Linehan (@hlinehan) tweeted:

“Irishtimes.com links to other sites all the time and we don’t believe we need a licence to do so. So it would be absurd to argue the reverse in relation to others linking to us.”

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The international media – traditional and “new”, but not Irish – have taken the latest post from McGarr Solicitors’ dealings with Newspaper Licensing Ireland and run with it.  For those not familiar with this – NLI is owned by National Newspapers Ireland. Which counts all of the major national and local newspapers as members.  NLI collects licence fees from clippings agencies.  Now they also want to start collecting money from people, or organisations such as Women’s Aid, who publish a weblink to a story on one of their members’ websites.

€300 a time. Not for re-publishing an article, or a summary, or an excerpt. Just for linking to the article.  Like the way I just linked to the Womens’ Aid website, above.  Despite the fact that pretty much every newspaper that’s a member of NNI – and therefore an owner of NLI – publishes terms and conditions on their websites saying, explicitly, yes, you have permission to link to us (as if permission was needed anyway).  Despite the fact that most newspapers with an online presence have prominent “link to/share this story” buttons, allowing a one-click share of the URL to Facebook, Twitter, et al. (In the case of the Irish Times, it’s publishing 300 such “share this!” buttons!)  Despite the fact that it’s not a big deal for any website publisher to intercept ‘deep links’ and redirect them to their home page, if they so desire.  Despite the fact that the story I’ll be paying to link to will quite often contain a link itself, for which the newspaper hasn’t paid.

As hardcopy newspaper sales continue to fall, more online advertising needs to be sold by them. To keep rates high, they need traffic.  To get traffic, ideally they need lots of inbound links to their stories.  So – they’re going to charge me €300 for linking to this inanity?  How does that work, exactly?

Obviously, it doesn’t.

Consider, for a moment, the stupidity – or even insanity – of this position. That’s like me being stopped on the street to be asked for directions to a pub – only for the pub owner to then chase after me to charge for business being sent his way!

Don’t just take my word for it, though. You can contact NLI yourself to ask them about this. Just don’t use any punctuation whatsoever in their web form or it won’t work.

I was going to email them to get an address where I can rat people out, you see.  I saw Conor Pope linking to an online Irish Times article the other day, and Irish Times trustee, UCD Professor of Computer Science Barry Smyth, admits to linking to newspapers occasionally in his Daily Trawl.  Obviously, every journalist with an online presence should be paying for all of those links they publish on Twitter, too.  I reckon at a modest 10% bounty, I could make a few bob on the side…

Or maybe not.

Now – if only there was a way for lots of people in Ireland to collectively get the message out that maybe NLI are being a bit stupid.  And/or their owners are being a bit incompetent in not reining them in, rapidly.  And that maybe we should stop buying their print versions and visiting their online versions until such time as they have copped on and apologised to Women’s Aid.  And that maybe they should send a donation their way, too.  What’d that take, I wonder – a drop of a couple of thousand sales in a week, and a couple of thousand website visitors?