There was a time, not long ago, when whoever wanted to use a news story for commercial purposes would actually ask the newspaper's permission. They might even pay for the privilege.
As outlandish to the Google generation as typewriters, the idea was that newspapers owned their content. And why shouldn't they?
They pay reporters, photographers and editors to produce news stories. They spend huge sums to send journalists into the world's danger zones. Then there is the real estate, the buildings, the equipment needed. None of it is cheap.
And yet when I sat at my desk in Atlanta and Googled for the latest news on Obama and Guantanamo Bay recently, up came stories produced by the Kansas City Star, the Chicago Sun-Times, the Miami Herald and other news organizations.
I didn't pay for the stories. And, for the most part, neither did Google.
You wouldn't expect General Motors to give away its cars to Toyota. But we have come to expect all the news in the world at the touch of our fingertips, brought to us mostly by search engines and aggregators that gobble up the product often without paying the producers a penny.
Thanks in part to a steady diet of free food, Google has grown into a worldwide giant while newspapers have had their guts hollowed out.
That isn't the only reason, not even the main reason, newspapers totter on the brink of extinction. To some degree they have cut out their own guts.
Profit-hungry publishers kept trimming staffs, downgrading the product and shrinking circulation areas long before the Internet started sucking away ads or sucking in content. At the same time, publishers ignored the potential the Internet offered for a cleaner, cheaper, quicker news delivery and cost-efficient want-ads.
And that doesn't even get into the journalistic failings of newspapers or the recession's devastating effect on ad revenue.
But that still doesn't mean newspapers should have to continue giving search engines and news aggregators a free ride. It is in no one's interest for news organizations to collapse. Who would cover the news? The blogger next door?
If you eliminate straight news from journalists backed by newspapers or broadcast organizations, the Internet has very little professionally produced, straight news reporting.
No one has come up with a way to cover the vast expense of reporting breaking news without professional (meaning, paid and usually trained) reporters.
The Internet has commentary and analysis, search engines and aggregators. This sort of thing "leeches that reporting from mainstream news publications," as former Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon put it last month before a Senate subcommittee.
"The parasite is slowly killing the host," testified Simon, author and writer of the HBO series The Wire.
While journalists and entrepreneurs look, belatedly, for a way to make journalism work online, newspapers are going bankrupt, their staffs shrinking.
Without the host, what will happen to the parasite?
"You have to have some kind of compensation for the use of content that amounts to journalism, or otherwise you're not going to have journalism," says Bruce Sanford, a media lawyer in Washington with Baker Hostetler.
News organizations already have it within their power to force a sea change by claiming ownership over that which is already theirs.
Search engines and news aggregators are probably within the law in offering headlines, snippets and links to news stories. That is, no doubt, fair use and permissible under copyright law.
When they want to display more, as Google does with stories from the Associated Press, for example, they get licensing agreements and pay for the privilege.
But even to offer those snippets, Google electronically scoops up all the content on every website around and stores it on a database. That isn't fair use, even though Google doesn't show the data to others.
"Copyright law gives the holder of the copyright exclusive use over the right to make copies" of its material, says Bruce Brown, another Baker Hostetler lawyer in Washington, who represents news organizations.
A court in Brussels ruled in 2007 that what Google does violates the law in Belgium. Google is appealing.
Google spokesman Gabriel Stricker says all that newspapers have to do to prevent Google from copying their websites is to opt out, either wholesale or on a story-by-story basis.
"We send a billion clicks a month to newspaper sites," Stricker says.
Newspapers desperate for eyeballs on their websites have a hard time saying no to that, especially when their less-queasy competitors would benefit.
But if all of them opted out, the search engines, the aggregators and their readers might realize that news is worth paying for.
News organizations could do so individually, without collusion, if they had the intestinal fortitude for it.
Of course, Congress could help them out by amending the law to make it clear that scooping up websites infringes copyrights, argue Brown and Sanford in an op-ed piece published last month in the Washington Post.
Newspapers could also step up efforts to persuade Congress to ease up on antitrust law, at least temporarily, so they can work together to figure out a way to keep professional journalism alive in the Internet age.
That is the sort of bailout that would cost taxpayers nothing, doesn't put Washington in the board room and yet could help save a critically ill and critically important industry.
Ann Woolner is a Bloomberg news columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.
(China Daily 06/01/2009 page11)