Attributor: Stopping infringers without the courts’ help?


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While companies such as Righthaven try to protect journalists’ copyrights by reflexively suing alleged infringers, online monitoring firm Attributor has pursued a different approach: reflexively trying to strike licensing deals, turning infringing websites into authorized, paying outlets for content. On Monday, Attributor announced the results of a trial run of this approach, finding that a simple request to share revenue or remove unauthorized copies of newspaper articles did the trick 75% of the time.

No doubt some news publishers wouldn’t be satisfied just to have infringing material removed. Much of what’s churned out in the journalism business has a half-life measured in hours, not days; by the time an unauthorized copy is taken off a site (which could have been more than two weeks after the infringement was spotted), much of the public’s interest in it may have evaporated anyway.


Nevertheless, it’s encouraging to see copyright holders in the publishing business try to emulate what the music industry has done with YouTube, trying to turn third-party distribution from nuisance into new revenue without resorting to the courts. What Attributor does gets at only a portion of the challenge publishers face online -- significantly, it doesn’t address the phenomenon of search engines monetizing the interest in news, or aggregators running ads against headlines and short excerpts. But it could reduce the incidence of third parties lifting articles wholesale and monetizing them in direct competition with the publishers’ own sites.

The trial run was the first test of a ‘graduated response’ approach advocated by the ‘Fair Syndication Consortium,’ a group of publishers assembled by Attributor. The consortium’s goal is to promote licensing deals that allow sites to reuse the publishers’ content in exchange for a portion of the advertising revenue the sites generate.

During the five-month trial, Attributor crawled the Net in search of 70,000 news articles published by members of the consortium. It found more than 400,000 suspected infringements on about 45,000 sites. That’s a large number in absolute terms but chicken feed in comparison to piracy in the entertainment industry, where a single song or movie can generate hundreds of thousands of illegal downloads.

Attributor tried to exempt fair uses by searching only for cases in which three conditions were met: at least 80% of an article was used, the article was more than 150 words long, and the site ran ads against the article. That’s not a perfect formula -- reusing an entire article without authorization could conceivably be a fair use in some situations, and taking less than 80% of an article could still conceivably be an infringement. But Attributor narrowed the focus of the trial further by randomly choosing 107 sites that had reused at least 10 articles in a single month, a level that suggests routine and blatant infringement.

Attributor first sent the sites a ‘friendly’ e-mail identifying the copyrighted material and offering a licensing deal. The letter also asked that the material be removed if the site wasn’t interested in a license. According to the company, 43% of the sites complied with that first request. If it didn’t get a response within two weeks, the company sent a second e-mail warning that it was notifying search engines and ad networks of the infringement and asking them to stop providing links and ads served to those pages. That step prompted more than half of the remaining sites to comply, yielding an overall success rate of about 75%.

Again, ‘success’ is in the eye of the beholder. Attributor says most of the 107 targeted sites took the content down rather than signing licensing deals, the latter being more obviously beneficial to publishers. The trial also stopped short of taking the third step in the consortium’s graduated-response regimen: asking Web hosting companies to take down the infringing portions of the sites that don’t respond to the first two requests. So there was no measure of how effective such steps would be in deterring repeat infringers.


One other intriguing result of the trial is that other, crucial components of the Internet’s infrastructure for monetizing content seemed quick to respond to copyright owners’ requests. According to Attributor, search engines and ad networks each complied with more than 15,000 notices, ‘typically within 24 hours.’

-- Jon Healey


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