Do Article Tools Promote Copyright Infringement?

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A recent study by content licensing and tracking company iCopyright claims to have found a link between article tools, the links that let users email, Digg, save or otherwise interact with a story, and content misuse.

The premise is that article tools, by encouraging users to copy the content on a site for limited purposes, may actually be creating confusion on the reader’s part and encouraging them to make use of the content beyond the intention of the tool.

While this makes sense to some degree and the study’s research does seem to indicate that there is reason to believe article tools may incite some level of content misuse, there are also nagging issues and other problems with the study that make its findings, and its proposed solutions, seem less certain.

Basic Findings

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The iCopyright study consisted of two parts, a survey of 787 mailing list users as to their habits with reusing content and article tools. The second part was a usability study conducted by an independent lab that compared iCopyright’s article tools to competing services.

The study found that, 99% of visitors use articles on various sites in ways other than simple viewing. This includes printing, saving, emailing and sharing links. Of those who interact with content, nearly 65% said that they did so “Frequently” and another 31% said they did so occasionally.

However, nearly half of those who used articles used it for what the study considered a commercial use. This is because, according to iCopyright, the tools provide no clear system to explain the intended use of the tools nor any clear means to enforce the wishes of the publisher. These tools became de facto copy machines that, according to the study, were repeatedly abused out of ignorance.

According to the study, copyright notices and other self-fixes failed to work. Usability testing showed that such notices were overlooked or missed and users simply printed as they wished, even if it was in violation of the license.

To make matters worse, removing the tools did not help as 96% of respondents said that, if an article were not available for print via an article tool, they would do so anyway, most commonly via the browser’s “print” feature. Also, 95% said they would email an article even if it were unavailable via an article tool, including 37% who said they would copy and paste the entire text of the work into the email, as opposed to 40% who would simply email the link.

(Note: I it worth observing that linking to an article in an email nor printing out portions (perhaps even the entire work) is illegal. Deep linking is legal, fair use allows usage of small portions of the original and implied license may cover certain other behaviors. Simply because the study reports on a behavior does not mean that it is illegal or immoral.)

Also interesting is that 64% of respondents said they would rather use supplied article tools as opposed to other solutions and that the most important tools were email, print, save, share and comment, in that order.

The study then went on to present iCopyright’s article tools, which have strict controls on how the content is used, as a solution to the problem and as an opportunity to turn such uses of the content into a revenue stream.

The statistics in this study are very interesting and very enlightening for anyone who is curious how end users interact with their content. However, the study isn’t without its flaws and potential issues that need at least some attention.

Minor Problems

Though the data in the study is interesting and useful, it does come with a few caveats that are important to remember.

First, the sampling on the survey makes it more likely to attract those who routinely share articles. Not only were participants already subscribers to iCopyright’s Clip&Copy, a news service targeted at those who are interested in finding articles to reuse, but they had identified themselves as “information workers” more likely to have a job that requires them to share news.

Also, this sampling is not likely to be a good representative of visitors to an average blog or site. As every site has a different audience with unique skills and tendencies, so will change the types and means of interactions.

Second, the definition of “commercial use” is used a bit loosely. The answer options on the related question are whether users copy the article for “Personal Use”, “To Share with Friends and Family”, To Share with Coworkers”, “To Share With Clients” and “All of the Above”.

However, the study only considered the first two options non-commercial even though not all times an article is sent to coworkers or even clients is it commercial. Though many of them may be, it isn’t all of them for certain.

Another issue I see is that, in one section making the case for using iCopyright’s tools, the article said the following:

One thousand visitors to a site might generate $90 in advertising, assuming a $30 CPM and three page views per visitor. However, those same 1,000 visitors can produce $1,000 or more in commercial use licenses, assuming a 1% conversion rate at $100 per license. When built in to article tools, content licensing can provide a return ten times that of advertising.

These numbers seem incredibly optimistic on both sides. a $30 CPM is very high and many times the norm, but may be obtainable by some sites (very few). However, a 1% conversation rate on a $100 is almost impossible to imagine, especially since responses on far less expensive products is often much lower.

Though this is seems to be a simple example with off-the-cuff numbers to make a point, it doesn’t seem to mesh with current realities, especially with the economic downturn.

However, the biggest problem is the study’s proposed solution, to use iCopyright’s article tools with their protection, is not well supported. There is no research about how many people would be willing to pay for an interaction or what they would do if confronted with a fee for an action and they don’t wish to pay for it.

The study had already showed that, without any article tools, users will revert to other means to interact with content. If they are confronted with a fee, even a reasonable one, and don’t wish to pay it, those tools are still there.

Say, for example, a site charges for a print out of a work, if the user doesn’t wish to pay, they can still use their browser’s print button, copy/paste, etc. The only difference is that this time the user will know the wishes of the publisher and may be discourages. However, exactly how big of a deterrent that is, is not fully answered.

Still, none of these issues stop the study from providing some interesting insight into the way article tools are used and how the affect copyright. It will be interesting to see if these results change any major publisher’s approach to article tools as a result.

The Big Picture

Though the study has its flaws and is, understandably, a promotion for iCopyright’s own article tools services, which include its iCopyright for Creators service (previous coverage), a service targeted at bloggers, it does have some interesting statistics and some great insights.

For me, the takeaways are simple. Article tools see a wide variety of use and, if your goal is to limit what users do with your content, they are not the way to go. If you have less restrictive licensing, such as with this site, they probably make sense as the study shows that users strongly prefer such tools over the alternatives.

However, standard article tools as a means of protecting content or limiting use is a poor choice. But given that users who want to share your content will do so, it makes sense, in my opinion, it makes sense to apply them and channel that energy through a system you have some control over. Yes, there will be abuse of the tools, but at least it is your system and not something completely outside your ability to enforce, monitor and track.

Whether you use iCopyright or another set of article tools, it is important to understand the advantages and the drawbacks. As smaller publishers, most people reading this don’t have to worry too much about the bottom line and whether each infringement is a dollar lost, something the target group for this study does, but we still have to develop effective content strategies to make our content work for us, not against us.

Disclosure: iCopyright has donated to this site in the past and I have consulted for Attributor, a company that competes with the Creators service (though not the licensing service).

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