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The Saint Paul Globe, August 15, 1886

Scissors and Murdoch’s Cynicism

In its blackmail of Google and Facebook, the Australian news duopoly conveniently forgets its roots

Jeff Jarvis
Feb 2 · 7 min read

Just as he broke democracy, Rupert Murdoch is trying to break the internet with his protectionist legislation in Australia to force the platforms to “negotiate” and pay news publishers for the privilege of linking to them, giving them free marketing and audience.

Facebook is threatening to pull news out of its News Feed; Google is threatening to pull out of Australia entirely rather than break the net.

In researching the book I’m writing about the Gutenberg age, I’ve come to see just how cynical the Murdoch law is, for it conveniently ignores the roots of all newspapering, made with scissors and glue and each others’ content.

For about the first century, starting in 1605, newspapers were composed almost entirely of reports copied from mailed newsletters, called avvisi, which publishers promised not to change as they printed excerpts; the value was in the selecting, cutting, and pasting. Before them the avvisi copied each other by hand. These were the first news networks.

In the United States, the Post Office Act of 1792 allowed newspapers to exchange copies in the mail for free with the clear intent of helping them copy and publish each others’ news. In fact, newspapers employed “scissors editors” to compile columns of news from other papers.

In his excellent book, Who Owns the News?: A History of Copyright, Will Slauter tells of a reader coming across Benjamin Franklin Bache, Ben Franklin’s grandson, in 1790 as he put together an edition of the General Advertiser:

There was a great heap of newspapers laying on the table, and on the floor all about you, and you had in your hand a large pair of taylors’ [sic] shears, and there you cut out of other papers as much as you thought would fill yours…. And that’s the way you make money, and then you grumble and tell us how difficult it is for one to be a Printer.

Editors did not complain about being copied because they would copy in turn. The only thing that drove them nuts was not being credited.

In 1902, The Charlotte News set a trap for an unsuspecting scissors editor at a competing paper. The News ran a story about a gang of anarchists from Vladivostok planning to kill “all the prominent rulers of the globe.” (And you thought Q was new.) Police arrested the leader, one Count Robhgien Ruomorf Laetsew. Said The News in a next edition: “If the erudite scissors editor of The Herald had read the ‘story’ carefully, he might have noticed the name of the illustrious ‘Count’ was more understandable when read backward,” as “We steal from our neighbor.”

Note well that the first copyright laws — the Statute of Anne in England in 1710 and the U.S. Copyright Act of 1790 — did not include newspapers. Said Slauter of Congress: “There is no evidence to prove that lawmakers considered including newspapers in the copyright statute and then decided not to, but there is every reason to believe that granting copyright to newspapers would not have made sense to them. Copying is what enabled news to spread….” Not until 1909 in the U.S. did copyright cover newspapers, though even then there was debate as to whether it covered news articles, for they were the product of business more than authorship and it was still believed that the sharing of news was beneficial to the formation of public opinion.

The telegraph changed newspapers’ collegial ways as proprietors formed competing news service and one, the Associated Press, tried and for a time succeeded in court to promulgate a “hot news” doctrine that said the AP could enjoin others from reporting the facts of an event while its story still had market value. This is antithetical not only to the logic of copyright — that it protects only the treatment of information, not the information itself — and to the principles of an enlightened society. In the hot news ruling, INS v. AP, Louis Brandeis dissented:

An essential element of individual property is the legal right to exclude others from enjoying it. If the property is private, the right of exclusion may be absolute; if the property is affected with a public interest, the right of exclusion is qualified. But the fact that a product of the mind has cost its producer money and labor, and has a value for which others are willing to pay, is not sufficient to ensure to it this legal attribute of property. The general rule of law is, that the noblest of human productions — knowledge, truths ascertained, conceptions, and ideas — become, after voluntary communication to others, free as the air to common use.

Let us be clear that even without free mailed exchange of newspapers and scissors editors, every single newspaper and journalistic organization still depends for its life on using the work and words of others. Imagine if newspapers started charging each other for repurposing their reporting. Imagine if sources refused to talk to newspapers without payment for their expertise and time.

Yet today we have publishers on high horses acting as if God granted them copyright and that it should extend even to quoting snippets for the purpose of discussing and linking to the news online, in the process sending news organizations audience and customers — again, for free. Germany has its Leistungsschutzrecht, or ancillary copyright law, which was going to charge the platforms for snippets but came to naught when the publishers chickened out; Spain its link tax, which forced Google News out of the country, hurting only the journalists and the public; the EU its Articles 15 & 17 of the Copyright Directive.

And Australia has its Murdoch law. Let’s imagine it passes and Google pulls out of Australia. Murdoch won’t be hurt; he owns half the news brands in the country; people know where to find them. Without Google and without news in social media, startups and small sites would be hard pressed to get a foothold in the market to compete with Murdoch. Murdoch becomes even more powerful. Coincidence? Hardly.

But Murdoch, as ever, has a larger strategy, trying to undercut what he sees as his competitor, the net, the world around. Sir Tim Berners-Lee, the creator of the web, gave testimony to Australian legislators to remind them that “the ability of web users to link to other sites was ‘fundamental to the web’ and that the the proposed media code could break it because they risked setting a precedent that ‘could make the web unworkable around the world’.” Unintended consequence? Hardly.

Need I remind you that Rupert Murdoch is, as I said on the BBC, the single most malign influence in democracy in the English-speaking world. Yet even my old friends at The Guardian, caught up in their moral panic over the net, are aligning with the devil in his quest. Instead of collaborating with Murdoch I argue that we in journalism must clean our house and shame and shun Fox and SkyNews Australia.

Now Canada is threatening to copy Australia, with Heritage Minister Steven Guilbeault announcing — on social media, no less —that “we stand in solidarity with our Australian partners” and that “when facing the web giants, we must stand united.” How about standing united for the future of the net, freedom of expression, a diversification of news oligopolies, citizens, and the public conversation?

Google and Facebook are starting to pay news publishers in other countries. But let’s be honest: As I’ve said before, that is the fruit of blackmail, of news publishers cashing in their political capital to threaten platforms with protectionist legislation such as that in Australia to get pay-offs. This is no strategy for the future; it is publishers’ admission of defeat in adapting to the net and building that future themselves. All this pay-off money will do is delay the inevitable fall of their businesses. This is a perspective you will not read in the news because it’s critical of news publishers. It is a conflict of interest never revealed. [My disclosure: Facebook has contributed to projects at my school around news disinformation and quality.]

If you want to portray this as good guys against bad guys and wish to paint big tech platforms as the bad please keep in mind that the force against them is a worse guy. But my concern here is not for Murdoch’s or the publishers’ perfidy, cynicism, and hypocrisy. It is for the future of the net, which depends upon links, neutrality, and openness to bring its power to all the people not represented and not heard in old, mass media. The net is the antidote to their monopoly power and now they are attacking the net.

I gave an interview for the ABC in Australia outlining my fears about Murdoch’s impact on the net. You’ll find a tenth of what I said here.

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