Offering frequent news and analysis from the majestic Evergreen State and beyond, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Treating your customers like criminals

Although I have not personally read Dale Carnegie's classic work How to Win Friends and Influence People, I feel pretty comfortable suspecting that his advice for businesses wishing to expand their customer base does not include a suggestion to treat those same customers as criminals.

Generally speaking, that's a great strategy for becoming yesterday's news, which is what the Associated Press news service (the "AP wire") may ironically become if it does not quickly paddle its way out of the rough waters it foolishly launched itself into last week.

Last week, the AP send a cease and desist letter to the Drudge Retort, complaining that portions of some of its news stories has been excerpted by Drudge, rather than merely being linked to. In doing so, the AP has--intentionally, as far as I can tell--started a war between itself and the blogging community. That the AP has the nerve to suggest that it understands the "spirit of the internet" better than bloggers do (i.e. "link, don't quote"), is as Kos suggests, laughable:

The AP is going to lecture bloggers about what the "spirit of the internet" is all about? Laughable. And the AP certainly doesn't have free reign to rewrite copyright law on its own. Fair use provisions exist for a reason.

Kos, himself holding a specialized law degree in matters related to copyright, darned well ought to know what he's talking about, and as he is handling the entire matter quite well, thank you very much, I'm not particularly inclined to rehash here everything he has said.

What I do want to add is a broader observation into the messy, multi-party clash between the internet, the "information wants to be free" aspects of internet technology and emerging internet culture, U.S. and international copyright law, Fair Use, and corporate interests.

On the one extreme you have corporate interests, such as the Associated Press, claiming that they hold sole dominion over their creative works, and that none shall tread, however lightly, upon them without prior consent (or a bit of payola). On the other extreme there are, not to mince words, zealots like Richard Stallman who despise any restrictions on the movement of information, whatever its source.

As always, here in the real world the solution lies somewhere in the middle.

Historically, "the middle" has been codified in our copyright laws, which assert protections for creative people against the wholesale theft and copying of their works (traditional copyright protection), while also encouraging a vibrant and expresive culture of creativity by allowing limited copying of that same information (that's the "fair use" part of the law).

What is unclear today is whether the new capabilities created by internet technology will ultimately demand alterations to the legal definition of "the middle", or whether existing copyright law and fair use concepts are sufficient to find that balance between the legitimate rights of authors, artists, and the AP to protect their works, and the equally legitimate needs and desires to at times spread that work around without first obtaining a license.

If all this seems strangely familiar, that's because it is. We've been seeing exactly this same battle play out in the music industry, which has pitted the RIAA against file-sharing services such as napster and bittorrent. In that case, the RIAA's strategy of shotgunning the public with copyright infringement lawsuits has proved to be too far on the corporate end of the spectrum. Judges are routinely throwing out many of these lawsuits on the grounds that they've been filed with far too little evidence of any actual guilt by the named defendants.

What is salient here, with respect to the AP's arguments, is that the RIAA hasn't managed in any significant way to affect the file sharing behavior that seems to scare the pants off of them. But in trying to litigate their way to victory, they have managed to earn a reputation in the minds of most Americans as a bunch of disreputable corporate bullies.

So if anyone at the AP happens to be reading this, I would encourage them not to follow the RIAA down the proverbial rat hole. Don't do it. You'll lose in court, just like Kos says, and even if you somehow prevail in court you'll lose in the court of public opinion. Either way, it's bad for you.

Better, then, to take a genuinely cooperative stance with respect to the legitimate journalistic use of your material by bloggers. Try to find something in that middle ground that will work for everyone. My suggestion: the "link but don't quote" position is a loser right out of the gate. Instead, why don't you try "go ahead and quote, but please also link back to the source" as a more refined and workable position. Kind of like this:

On a more personal note, I would like to ask the audience here for some help. In late 2003, as was reported on the AP wire, my cousin Todd Staheli and his wife were murdered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil:

A day after confessing he killed an American Shell Oil executive and his wife, a 20-year-old handyman recanted and said that two other Brazilians committed the crime after he showed them how to get into the couple's condominium. The handyman, Jociel Conceicao dos Santos, was put in Brazil's witness protection programme after making the statement on Friday to police and human rights officials, said Rio state security secretary Anthony Garotinho."These people, he says, were the real authors of this crime and he only collaborated with them," Garotinho said. Dos Santos said he received 40,000 reals (US$13,800) for providing the information to the men.

Dos Santos gave the men's names to authorities and said they were from Rio, said Garotinho, who declined to provide the names and said police were searching for the men. His calm confession at a news conference after his arrest on Thursday raised doubts after he said his motive was to punish Staheli for smearing him with a racial
slur in fluent Portuguese. But Staheli's relatives in the U.S. state of Utah said the executive spoke little or no Portuguese after arriving in Brazil less than four months before the killings.

The FBI, which has been monitoring the case, does not consider the case closed, said Wesley Carrington, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia.

Although there was eventually an arrest in the case, the evidence was never particularly compelling and to this day neither I nor the other members of my family believe that the actual assailant or assailants have been identified. In the slight chance that anyone reading this has information that can help, please let us know.

And if the AP wants to try suing NPI for that particular quote-and-link, I promise you this: we'll hire Kos as our lawyer.

The reality is that most bloggers are good, decent people. They understand that journalism in any form is work. Hard work, at that. If all you're asking for is fair credit for the work you've done, in the form a link accompanying fair use quotes of your material, I think you'll find that most bloggers will be happy to do that. Hint: the links and quotes are the most effective form of free advertizing you're going to get, too.

But if you're going to insist on trying to sue your way to victory, I promise you this: you won't win any friends, and you'll lose whatever influence you may presently have over other people.


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