News aggregation sites threatened with legal action

National, regional and local newspapers are attempting to force news aggregation sites to accept stringent new rules on linking to content in a bid to maintain their virtual monopoly on news, says the head of one of the UK’s top aggregation sites.

Struan Bartlett, Managing Director and Chairman of NewsNow has written an open letter to the bosses of top newspapers including The Times, The Sun, The Guardian, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, The Daily Telegraph, The Independent and the Daily Express protesting that the organisations are attempting to characterise news aggregators as undermining their businesses and are seeking to introduce new controls on linking to newspaper websites.

Bartlett told TG Daily: “Pretty much all the named newspapers are leaning on us, plus others such as Johnston Press. Some are taking issue with our linking, full stop. Others are under what we think is a mistaken impression that we’re making commercial use of their content, and think that gives them the right to demand money and control.

“Our value though is independent of their content. We don’t distribute their content. We’re providing a service that determines which articles are relevant to which people, and then serves you a headline link. We’re not making money from their content. Even on our paid-for services, which purely offer personalised selection criteria, we don’t distribute more than a headline link and, except where publishers object, a short extract.

“Right now a number of players are threatening to pursue the matter in the courts if we don’t stop linking or else accept their imposition of charges and controls. But in terms of charges, what’s being demanded is compensation for linking, not a share of revenue, but right now it’s unclear how much our accepting this would cost us.” 

In his letter, Bartlett explains:

“A number of parties have threatened us (plus other aggregators) with legal action if we do not either accept these new controls or else stop linking. We are aware that many newspapers are facing severe financial challenges and are urgently seeking a way to return to profitability. We can understand why you are looking for options.

“But we have had enough of indiscriminate attacks. To vilify all aggregators as “cheap worthless technological news solutions” and “content kleptomaniacs” is just empty rhetoric. Not only is that misleading – it is misguided.”

The “cheap worthless technological news solutions” quote is attributed to Matt Kelly, Associate Editor of the Daily Mirror and, at conference in Prague and Rupert Murdoch, Managing Director, News Corporation, came up with the “content kleptomaniacs” epithet in a speech in China.

Continues Bartlett: “We can’t speak for all aggregators but for our part at NewsNow, we don’t do anything that detracts from the value of your content. We don’t redistribute your web pages to anyone. We operate within the law, and we don’t do you any harm. Far from it. We deliver you traffic and drive you revenues you otherwise wouldn’t have received.

“The idea that we are undermining your businesses is incorrect. It is fanciful to imagine that, if it weren’t for link aggregators, you would have more traffic or revenues. We provide a service that you do not: a means for readers to find your content more readily, via continuously updating links to a diversity of websites. The truth is, if anything, it is the growth of the Internet itself – not link aggregation – that has undermined your businesses by destroying the virtual monopoly that you once held over the mass distribution of written news.

“If you are seeking to blame something for your current predicament, we suggest you start there. It is disingenuous to blame legitimate link aggregation websites like ours for your financial woes and it is misguided to attempt to control linking. This cannot be the way forward. We urge you to start listening to your own staff and readers. Accept you no longer have a virtual monopoly over the distribution of written news. Work with the Internet, rather than against it.”

Bartlett concludes by calling on the news organisations to stop the legal threats; recognise the place and value of legitimate news aggregation websites in today’s news ecosystem; commit to upholding the freedom to link; and support those of your readers who wish to find links to your websites on NewsNow.

The full text of Bartlett’s letter is available here.