3 Copyright Stories that Aren’t Newsworthy

When your copyright news isn't really news...

Newspaper ImageFinding copyright news can be a daunting task. Mainstream news coverage of copyright issues tends to favor stories with popular appeal, such as the Blurred Lines case, and blog coverage is often so hopelessly biased (in all directions) that it’s difficult to discern what exactly happened.

While there are great sites that do amazing work in reporting copyright, such as The Hollywood Reporter Esquire, Variety and Billboard (which is affiliated with The Hollywood Reporter), they tend to be industry publications, covering the laws relevant to their field.

But one of the strange side effects of the current copyright news climate is that, sometimes, non-stories get elevated and are treated as very serious stories. This is usually because the stories are great fodder for social media and are almost guaranteed to get heavily tweeted and shared.

However, just because a story appears in a lot of publications or is all over social media doesn’t mean that it’s extremely important. Sometimes, the biggest stories are non-stories when you break them down, as with these three examples.

1: The Diary of Anne Frank Removed from Wikisource

Diary of a Young Girl CoverOn January 1st, 2016, in many countries in the world, the Diary of Anne Frank, theoretically, became public domain. In many countries, the copyright in the book extended 70 years past the death of the author and Anne Frank died in 1945 while still in a Nazi concentration camp.

Wikisource, a free library project that’s part of the Wikimedia Foundation, the same organization that operates Wikipedia, posted the book to their site. However, after learning that it was still copyrighted in the United States, the organization removed it.

That sparked a series of headlines about the removal including one on Torrentfreak that read “U.S. Copyright Law Forces Wikimedia to Remove ‘Public Domain’ Anne Frank Diary”. The story also made its rounds on the BBC as well as other mainstream news sites.

Why It’s Not Newsworthy

The reason this isn’t a story is pretty simple. While the original diary may be in the public domain in much of Europe (more on that in a moment), the United States uses a different method for calculating copyright term on such books.

Where other countries use the “Life plus 70” test, the United States term is 95 years after publication. Normally, the U.S. term is actually shorter but, in cases where the author dies within 25 years of publication, it can be longer.

However, to summarize what happened, the Wikimedia Foundation, a U.S. organization with its servers in the same country, posted a book that was still copyrighted in the U.S. and, when it learned of its mistake, removed it.

It’s not much of a story when you put it like that.

The More Interesting Story

There is, however, some very serious debate over the diary. As we discussed in late 2015, the organization that controls the rights to the book, a non-profit named Anne Frank Fonds, claims that her father, who edited the diary, is a co-author.

Since he didn’t die until 1980, they believe the copyright will not expire in “life plus 70” countries until 2050 at the earliest and that’s barring still other cases of editors claiming co-authorship.

This has created a minefield for those wanting to exploit the book, even in countries where it supposedly has lapsed into the public domain, let alone in the U.S., where it’s copyright term is at least clear.

2: Disney Asks Employees to Help Pay for Copyright Lobbyists

Disney ImageThe House of Mouse is commonly associated with the 1998 copyright extension that added another 20 years onto U.S. copyright terms. It effectively lobbied for the law and played a key role in getting it passed, showing its lobbying power.

However, recently Disney CEO Bob Iger sent a letter to his employees asking for their help pitch in to pay for lobbyists on copyright issues, specifically by making a donation to DisneyPAC, the company’s lobbying arm.

The story was started on Ars Technica, but has since been picked up by a variety of outlets including TechEye and the MintPress News blog.

Why It’s Not Newsworthy

When it comes to being a copyright story, this one is neither really copyright-related nor a real story.

The original letter sent to Disney employees did mention copyright, but also mentioned tax reforms, two separate trade agreements and travel policies. While copyright was a key focus of the letter, especially with its mention of Aereo, Disney is obviously asking for help on a lot of different matters.

More importantly, as the original Ars Technica reporting stated, these letters are not that uncommon. Large companies routinely ask their employees to donate to PACs that support their causes. This is true whether the company is a bank, a manufacturer or anything else you can imagine.

In short, even the original reporting mentioned how common this type of request is, making the focus on Disney’s activities even more strange.

The More Interesting Story

The more interesting story is the copyright reforms that Disney mentioned in its letter. For nearly the past three years, the House Judiciary Committee has been holding hearings about possibilities for copyright reform and followed that with a nationwide listening tour.

It’s widely expected that new recommendations could be made shortly in a variety of areas, many of which could impact a wide variety of stakeholders.

3: The Various ASCAP and BMI Lawsuits

BMI LogoFinally, this story is a bit more difficult because it isn’t one or two stories, but dozens or even hundreds.

However, the story is almost always the same. A restaurant, bar or other local establishment is sued by either ASCAP or BMI, who is teaming up with other publishers over the alleged playing of unlicensed music. Usually the lawsuits list just a handful of songs and the artists’ names are often mentioned in the headline or body copy.

It doesn’t matter if it’s a bar in Grand Isle, LA, a pizza place in Chicago, IL or nightclub in Fairfax, CA, the story is the same and you can find dozens more stories like these. Sometimes they even make national news, such as this 2015 coverage in USA Today.

Why It’s Not Newsworthy

While these stories are definitely impactful to the businesses and communities involved, it’s rare for even local media to cover lawsuits between businesses. Yet these are covered with great regularity.

These lawsuits are extremely common. Both ASCAP and BMI regularly sue restaurants and other businesses that fail to license the music they play. They do this because they are performing rights organizations (PROs) that pay royalties to publishers and songwriters publicly-peformed compositions.

The law is clear that public performance in a business requires a license and ASCAP and BMI always make this clear to the businesses they target, often warning them dozens or even hundreds of times before filing a lawsuit. When it does reach a lawsuit, the case is usually either an easy victory for them or it is quickly settled.

The More Interesting Story

Collectively, these lawsuits are pretty interesting, even if the individual cases aren’t. However, the bigger issue is still music licensing as a whole.

Music licensing reform has been a hot button issue for years and has been a heavy focus in the recent aforementioned copyright hearings. Even ASCAP has offered its proposals for such reform.

The key focus is trying to find ways to simplify music licensing, which can be highly complicated, in a bid to save money and increase the amount actually paid to rightsholders. Such reform could also help prevent lawsuits like this one from taking place by eliminating confusion about what licenses are needed.

Bottom Line

When it comes to the coverage of copyright news, what’s important and impactful isn’t always what’s popular. To that end, I’m sometimes guilty of this as well when it comes to my 3 Count column.

But the point is this, not every copyright story that gets a great deal of media attention is important, unusual or impactful. Some are simply common, almost everyday occurrences that, because of the names involved, get more attention.

While they might be interesting and important collectively, the individual tales often get blown out of proportion. That can actually hurt discussion of the larger issues, by making the individual cases seem more rare than they are.

In short, the issue really isn’t that these aren’t important stories, but that they are just small snapshots of an important story presented as a complete tale. As with most things, the truth is complicated and the complete picture is anything but complete.

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