A leg up on bootleggers

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Newsrooms might be resistant, but new technology could make copyright infringement a thing of the past

by Andrea Iseman
Convergence Magazine
Winter 2008/2009

While the Toronto Star and the Canadian Press may not want the software Mike O’Donnell is selling, he says it’s just a matter of time before they come knocking. He chuckles when he is told that some news organizations don’t see copyright infringement as a big enough bogeyman to fight with the latest technology.

Many publishers including the Toronto Star use iCopyright to license material, but several are not interested in the recently- launched copyright detection tool, Discovery.

New technologies are making it harder for plagarists to get away with stealing content. Photo by Kenneth Brown.

New technologies are making it harder for plagarists to get away with stealing content. Photo by Kenneth Brown.

“It is a huge issue. They probably just don’t know the staggering statistics,” says O’Donnell, who is the president and CEO of the Issaquah, Washington-based company, iCopyright.

“What we are finding is that [publishers] are overwhelmed by the number [of infringements] they have found. They are saying, ‘wow, it is a bigger number than I thought,’ and that is immediately followed by, ‘some of them [thieves] are making money from it.’”

iCopyright is the company behind Discovery, a new technology that searches the web hourly to hunt down copyright burglars. Having just launched the program, O’Donnell says technology such as that employed by Discovery is the cheapest way to find and prosecute offenders.

Toronto-based This Magazine employs three full-timers, not nearly enough people to deal with finding copyright infringement, says Graham F. Scott, the editor of the magazine.

“I don’t know how big of a problem it is, and I don’t think anyone does,” says Scott. “It is a matter of ‘do we have the time and money to go out and prosecute copyright infringement’.”

It’s a familiar refrain for O’Donnell. “Even for the big guy – it is expensive for them to pursue it manually,” he says. “Discovery does it for pennies.”

O’Donnell says copying and pasting online articles into text documents is the biggest copyright headache facing publishers. When someone distributes an article without using the “Email story” or “Print” options usually found alongside an online article, publishers are unable to track where and when their content is being used, he says.

This is where money is lost, says O’Donnell. Publishers and writers lose out on ad revenue and, ultimately, control of their content as the brand, logo and copyright don’t tag along with those articles when they travel.

“We live in a culture of cut and paste, which negatively impacts the value of content,” says O’Donnell. “In the past, there has been a notion that you respect people’s intellectual property rights by giving them attribution, but that has now been lost.”

At the Globe and Mail’s Toronto headquarters, Celia Donnelly, manager of news research and chief librarian of editorial research, says the newspaper will soon start using the Discovery program.

She suggests copyright infringement may be a bigger problem than people think, saying without the help of technology, the losses could be even more significant, as people access content through the back door without paying for it.

“You couldn’t have enough staff on hand to monitor it – it is just too huge,” says Donnelly. “Unfortunately, people were getting away with ripping off all or parts of our articles and not paying to use them.”

Because the technology is fairly new, Donnelly is skeptical of Discovery’s usefulness. But right now, it appears to offer the best chance of monitoring content.

Before Discovery, “we just had to hope that people were honest and we could catch the odd one out,” she says.

Most copyright crooks don’t wind up in court, but there are instances where The Globe and Mail has had no other choice but to prosecute. Donnelly says cases that can tarnish the name of the paper are enough to get people talking.

“We don’t want to have our content on a white supremacist site,” says Donnelly. “That is another issue that we are trying to deal with. If it does happen, that takes major priority over somebody just ripping it off for free.”

Tim Clark, director of new product development for The Canadian Press, agrees.

“Hypothetically, you wouldn’t want . . . a story on gambling or addiction to end up on a porn site that happened to have a gambling section,” says Clark.

Although copyright infringement is a concern for Clark, he doesn’t think it is a huge problem for The Canadian Press, particularly because they provide news that is sold to other news organizations.

“I could never really say I am not worried, but we don’t have a lot of control once it is posted on a website,” he says.

Clark, no Pollyana, says he recognizes the potential threat posed by copy pirates. But right now he’s betting on old-fashioned manpower rather than sexy technology.

Sidebar: Copyright Free Zone

After three unsuccessful bids, Bill C61 died on Oct. 29, 2008. But advocates for changes to Canada’s copyright laws are determined to fight on. Some of the proposed alterations to the Copyright Act are designed to redefine issues of time shifting, limited format shifting and copying for personal use.

Dr. Michael Geist, law professor at the University of Ottawa and the Canada Research Chair of Internet and E-commerce Law is upset, but not in mourning. Geist, who has been involved in copyright advocacy for more than 10 years, says Bill C-61 isn’t just about altering copyright laws. “It is about the kinds of copyright choices that this government makes.”

Dr. Michael Geist gives a speech on copyright law at Humber College. Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on Internet law. Photo by Jennifer Conley.

Dr. Michael Geist gives a speech on copyright law at Humber College. Geist is a law professor at the University of Ottawa and an expert on Internet law. Photo by Jennifer Conley.

As far as moving forward with copyright reform, Deborah Windsor and Bill Freeman disagree with Geist on one key point: the idea that some content should be made available for free under flexible fair dealings.

“There are people who want anything on the Internet to be free – I am referring to the Michael Geists of the world,” says Windsor, executive director of the Writers’ Union of Canada. “But if the creators had wanted to distribute it for free, they should identify that and if they don’t want it reused . . . they should have the right to do that.”

Freeman, chair of the Creators’ Copyright Coalition agrees. He says that creators should have the right to choose.

“There needs to be an economic system in place where creators and producers will be rewarded for their work. I think when you point this out to people, they expect it,” says Freeman. “That is the way the system works.”

In the Throne Speech at the opening of the 40th parliament, Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean said the Harper government would proceed with legislation to “modernize Canada’s copyright laws and ensure stronger protection for intellectual property.”

This left Windsor skeptical.

“We are always hopeful, but cautious . . . we don’t want to get giddy and excited because we don’t want to get disappointed again. It is like we have been to Christmas Eve three times and we never wake up in the morning.”

To read my article in its original format, click here, and go to pages 13-14.

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