More than seven years ago in 2002, Google launched its automated news aggregator “Google News”: Articles are selected and ranked by an algorithm according to characteristics such as issue frequency, freshness, location, relevance and diversity. On its front page Google News presents the headlines and about 200 characters of some articles together with links to the full texts where available online.

Not later than 2005 Google had to face the first law suits dealing with alleged copyright infringement filed by news agencies (e.g. Agence France Presse). Their claim: Google generates revenue using their content without proper compensation. But news agencies are not the only ones demanding their share from Google’s profits. Recently, the European Publisher Council (EPC) as well as the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (WAN-IFRA) and several of their member organizations signed the “Hamburg Declaration on Intellectual Property Rights” (see list of signatories) that bemoans too little protection and compensation of online content. In Germany, the Federation of German Newspaper Publishers (BDVZ) even calls for a new and all-embracing ancillary copyright with lump-sum payments as compensation for revenues third parties like Google make with their content.

Critics of these claims, however, accuse publishing houses of simply failing to develop new business models and therefore now trying to lobby for legally enforced compensation. One of these critics, blogger Malte Welding, compared the CEOs of publishing houses to zoo directors in a very entertaining piece (in Google-English) in the German online-only paper “netzzeitung”:

“Imagine you are a zoo director. 50 percent of your visitors arrive via public transport. Bus and train operators and taxi drivers don’t pay a cent for feeding the animals but make a lot of profit with the visitors of the zoo. So it is common sense that you as a zoo director would demand money from the transport corporations.” (translation L.D.)

The absurdity of the comparison perfectly demonstrates how the legitimacy of claims for compensation is socially constructed; a task, publishing houses are in a privileged position to fulfil with their numerous and powerful media outlets. But not only the legitimacy of the claims is far from being self-evident, the framing as a copyright issue is, as well. Zachary M. Seward from the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University provides snippets of a debate between Doug Lichtman (UCLA) and NYT lawyer Ken Richieri, in which the latter expresses its doubts that aggregation is a copyright issue after all (via):

“I mean, I think the big issue online and the pressure publishers are feeling is that publishers online are having a hard time replicating the economics that they saw offline. And many of them are looking at that through the lens of copyright…. I think where I would just draw a distinction is I am not so sure that copyright is really the culprit in a lot of this…that that’s an imperfect lens and an imperfect remedy.”

This points to an interesting challenge for research dealing with copyright regulation, namely to not take the object or field of copyright regulation as given. The same time, it impressively emphasizes the power of framing: sucessfully framing a subject matter as an object of copyright regulation may performatively lead to its regulation within an existing copyright regime.

(leonhard)