Every day, many times a day, people all over the world go to Google News to search for the latest news stories. And whether they're searching for news about "fiscal cliff" or "Kim Kardashian and Kanye West," Google News does for news what Google does for the Web in general -- it gives the user a list of relevant links drawn from its enormous and constantly-updated database. When users search for a specific news story, Google gives them a list of headlines with a one- or two-line snippet from each article -- and a link to the original, full, news item.
Google News has helped to change the way many of us consume journalism. Rather than page through the paper, either online or in print, we search for articles relating to topics that interest us. Google serves as our news portal, newspapers as the content suppliers.
As you might imagine, not all newspapers like this. Many believe that Google News robs them of traffic because the headline and snippet that Google provides is enough information for many readers, who then won't click through to the newspaper website. To make matters worse, Google doesn't pay for this information. Newspapers especially resent that Google's enormous popularity as a news search engine allows it make a lot of money, mostly from targeted ads.
In fact, in Europe, some newspapers are urging their governments to pass new laws that would upend this system. The basic idea is simple and radical: Make the copying of links illegal. If links are protected by copyright, search engines will have to license the right to copy any link. In this way, copyright law will help move dollars from Google (based in Mountain View) to the Sueddeutsche Zeitung (based in Munich.)
European politicians have given this idea a warm reception. German Chancellor Angela Merkel came out publicly in support of some form of copyright for news links. Likewise, in a meeting last month with Google's Chairman Eric Schmidt, French President François Hollande stated that France would legislate unless Google struck a satisfactory deal with the French press.
The proposal to create a new form of copyright in links raises two important questions. Will such a rule actually benefit newspapers? And will it ultimately benefit us -- the readers of the news? Unfortunately, the answer to both questions is almost surely no.
Let's consider first whether making the unauthorized copying of links illegal will help newspapers. Google's most likely response to such a law is to drop from its search function any European newspaper that tries to collect the charge. This is essentially what happened in Belgium in 2011. A Belgian court ordered Google to stop posting headlines and snippets on Google News or pay fines of $35,000 a day. After Google removed any mention of the complaining papers from its searches, the newspapers, represented by a trade group called Copiepresse, rushed to surrender, voluntarily dropping the penalties.
As this episode shows, being linked to be Google is valuable to newspapers, because Google is now a crucial -- maybe the crucial -- news portal for many readers. One recent study examined a dispute in 2010 between Google and the Associated Press. A breakdown in contract talks between the AP and Google led Google to remove AP content from Google News for seven weeks. During that period traffic to the newspapers that have their content distributed by the AP dropped substantially. Another study examined what happened when Google added a "localization" feature that added local news content for Google users who provided their location. Local news went up, as did click-through to local news websites.
So there is reason to think that French and German newspapers should be careful what they wish for. And is a copyright in links a good idea for the rest of us? Here too, the answer is no.
One of the great features of the Internet is that it allows us to access news and information from around the world. Twenty years ago, almost no newspapers were online (The New York Times' website began operation in 1996), and in-depth news from a foreign country, or even a distant U.S. city, was hard to come by.
Today, any decent paper, here or abroad, has a website. We have access to more news, from more places and perspectives, than ever before. Generally speaking, this is great for us as consumers and as citizens.
Of course there is a downside to this open flow of news. Many small newspapers have suffered as readers migrate to bigger, sometimes foreign, papers via their online sites. Regional papers with proud histories, like the Philadelphia Inquirer, have been forced to retrench as their readers migrate online to national papers like The New York Times.
On balance, though, the gains from access to a wide and global variety of news sources are enormous. Creating a new kind of property right in links will disrupt this robust marketplace in news, and limit our access to the best reporting from around the world. There is no good case for creating a copyright in links. The newspapers won't gain. And the public will lose.
The Knockoff Economy: How Imitation Sparks Innovation by by Kal Raustiala and Christopher Jon Springman
From the shopping mall to the corner bistro, knockoffs are everywhere in today's marketplace. Conventional wisdom holds that copying kills creativity, and that laws that protect against copies are essential to innovation--and economic success. But are copyrights and patents always necessary? In The Knockoff Economy, Kal Raustiala and Christopher Sprigman provocatively argue that creativity can not only survive in the face of copying, but can thrive.
The Knockoff Economy approaches the question of incentives and innovation in a wholly new way--by exploring creative fields where copying is generally legal, such as fashion, food, and even professional football. By uncovering these important but rarely studied industries, Raustiala and Sprigman reveal a nuanced and fascinating relationship between imitation and innovation. In some creative fields, copying is kept in check through informal industry norms enforced by private sanctions. In others, the freedom to copy actually promotes creativity. High fashion gave rise to the very term "knockoff," yet the freedom to imitate great designs only makes the fashion cycle run faster--and forces the fashion industry to be even more creative.
Raustiala and Sprigman carry their analysis from food to font design to football plays to finance, examining how and why each of these vibrant industries remains innovative even when imitation is common. There is an important thread that ties all these instances together--successful creative industries can evolve to the point where they become inoculated against--and even profit from--a world of free and easy copying. And there are important lessons here for copyright-focused industries, like music and film, that have struggled as digital technologies have made copying increasingly widespread and difficult to stop.
Raustiala and Sprigman's arguments have been making headlines in The New Yorker, the New York Times, the Financial Times, the Boston Globe, Le Monde, and at the Freakonomics blog, where they are regular contributors. By looking where few had looked before--at markets that fall outside normal IP law--The Knockoff Economy opens up fascinating creative worlds. And it demonstrates that not only is a great deal of innovation possible without intellectual property, but that intellectual property's absence is sometimes better for innovation.