Q&A: Navigating Copyright Compliance Issues for News Publishers

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The below Q&A is from an interview with News/Media Alliance Executive Vice President & General Counsel, Danielle Coffey, published in the February 2023 edition of Editor & Publisher Magazine. The original article is available here.

Q: In what ways have copyright laws and compliance become more complicated in the digital, social media age?

A: There are two sides to this question. First, digital transformation has led to a proliferation in the availability of news sources and content for journalists and publishers, as well as the number of middlemen that publishers have to deal with regularly. As a result, publishers must pay more attention to due diligence — ensuring that they understand the relationships between the original copyright owner and any platforms or middlemen they may use and that they have the necessary rights to any content they publish.

For example, many publishers have recently struggled with the legal uncertainty around using embedded content on Instagram without explicit authorization from the original poster. Related to this, the increased availability of photos and videos taken by amateurs during news events — especially fast-moving ones where time is of the essence — raises important questions on how to acquire the necessary licenses while remaining on top of the newsworthy situation. These conditions require publishers to pay particular attention to ensuring they comply with applicable copyright laws.

Second, the digital age has also made it more complicated for publishers to protect their content against unauthorized uses. These uses range from the overly-expansive use of news content by search and social media platforms, which the Alliance has advocated against at length, to the use of news content for AI training purposes, to the unlawful posting of full-text articles on services often based abroad, often within minutes of publication, threatening the original publishers’ ability to benefit from subscription and digital advertising revenues. These uses are often systematic, and the infringers are hard to detect and locate, making enforcing copyright laws difficult, time-consuming and expensive.

Q: How have U.S. copyright laws and protections been challenged in the courts in recent years? Are there particular cases that news publishers should be familiar with — or concerned about?

A: There have been a few cases in the last five years with implications for news publishers, with some of the most important being Fox News Network v. TVEyes (2018), Goldman v. Breitbart (2018), and Warhol v. Goldsmith (ongoing).

TVEyes concerned a service that copied broadcasts from over 1,400 TV and radio stations and allowed its subscribers to search, download, watch and share clips of these programs. The District Court had found that both the search function and the watch function were fair use. Fox appealed the decision as it related to the watch function, and the Circuit Court reversed, finding the fourth fair use factor — related to potential market harm — decisive. This was a key victory for rightsholders, with the Court correctly noting that the market effect on the copyright owner should be a major factor in fair use analysis and giving leverage to the argument that even the use of clips of protected content can hurt the copyright owner and should be subject to serious scrutiny.

Meanwhile, Goldman focused on publishers’ ability to embed third-party content from social media. Specifically, the defendants had embedded a tweet with the plaintiff’s photograph of Tom Brady without the original poster’s authorization. Rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s “server test,” the Second Circuit agreed with Goldman, finding that the embedding violated his exclusive rights despite the image being hosted on a third-party server. Similar questions have since arisen in other cases, often concerning Instagram — which recently introduced an option to opt-out of embedding following discussions with the News/Media Alliance — with one publisher settling a case brought by a photographer in New York and Instagram managing to squash a class-action lawsuit against itself related to its embedding function in California. This remains an important debate for publishers to follow.

Lastly, we’re also eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision on Warhol, which concerns Andy Warhol’s paintings of Prince, based on a portrait taken by photographer Lynn Goldsmith for Vanity Fair before Prince became famous. Following Prince’s death, Goldsmith discovered that Warhol had made a whole series of paintings based on the photo without her permission. The case raises important questions about what amounts to “transformative use” within fair use analysis. The Alliance submitted an amicus brief in support of neither party, outlining some of the delicate considerations the case raises, including how an overly broad definition of “transformative use” could threaten the copied work right. The Court heard oral arguments in the case this past October, with the decision due this spring.

Q: Copyright was at the heart of the news publisher v. Big Tech negotiations in Europe. Can you share a synopsis of those negotiations and where things stand in Europe? Also, help us wrap some context around what’s happened in Europe and what it may mean for news publishers here in the States.

A: The European Union’s adoption in 2019 of its Directive on Copyright in the Digital Single Market, including Article 15, which requires member states to create a so-called “Publishers’ Right,” was a landmark development. It acknowledged the inability of publishers to effectively protect their content online against unauthorized uses by online platforms and provided publishers with an independent right to do so. In France, the first country to implement Article 15 in national law, publishers soon encountered problems negotiating with Google. In 2019, soon after the law’s adoption, Google refused to pay publishers and indicated it would stop showing excerpts in search results unless a publisher waived its right to compensation. Following a challenge by French publishers, the French competition authority issued an interim ruling, finding that Google likely engaged in anticompetitive behavior and required Google to engage in negotiations. While Google engaged in negotiations and reached some deals after the decision, the French competition watchdog issued a €500 million fine against Google a year later for failing to comply with the orders on conducting such negotiations. Following this fine, Google proposed commitments in early 2022 to change its practices and to resolve the investigation into its anticompetitive practices. The competition authority accepted Google’s commitments in June, with Google expected to negotiate with a broader selection of publishers in good faith.

From the publishers’ viewpoint in the United States, Europe established a precedent that Australia improved upon. The Alliance has embraced a model similar to Australia based on competition law, where the anticompetitive conduct and power of the monopolies are more squarely addressed. The Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, considered by Congress during the last session, would have adopted a similar approach in the U.S. to the Australian model, while Canada, the UK, and India are also considering similar approaches. All of the approaches attempt to address the disparities in the digital ecosystem that allow dominant online platforms not only to set the rules of the game but to reap the vast majority of rewards. Publishers need more leverage to negotiate fairer terms and compensation that help preserve high-quality journalism for future generations.

Q: Is the News/Media Alliance engaged in lobbying Congress for any changes to copyright law or protections granted to news publishers?

A: In comments submitted with the Copyright Office, the Alliance recommended that Congress explore a sui generis, or quasi-property right, that would recognize an exchange of value outside of the fair use factors but within copyright law. We are also actively advocating for changes that would allow publishers to register dynamic web content, which is currently impossible. This would significantly affect the publishers’ ability to register and protect their content online effectively.

Q: Who, typically or ideally, should be concerned with or tasked with copyright compliance at the news publisher?

A: This depends a lot on the type and size of the publication, with no easy one-size-fits-all answer. Some large publishers may have whole teams responsible for ensuring compliance with various laws, including copyright, while smaller outlets may rely on an individual person, such as an image editor. The most important thing is that whoever is responsible for compliance takes their job seriously, has the time and resources to do so properly, and has the authority to affect publishing decisions.


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