Last month we were contacted by the Newspaper Licensing Agency, which is owned by the UK’s national newspapers. It wanted to sell us a ‘newspaper copyright licence’. The licence would ensure that we become “copyright protected”.

Apparently we need a licence if we share press cuttings internally. It also applies to links shared that include “text extracts to explain what the link is”

A licence is also required for photocopying newspaper content, scanning and email cuttings, printing from a newspaper’s website, cutting and emailing text from a newspaper website, and putting any cuttings on our website.

Much of this doesn’t apply to our organisation, but we want to make sure that we’re operating in an ethical manner and are keen to abide by the rules. 

The issue is that the rules are:

a) flaky

b) self-defeating, and…

c) being set by people who aren’t really in any position to set them.

Let me explain.

There are too many shades of grey

We asked for clarification from the NLA about a month ago, as there are plenty of grey areas that we’re not clear about. We’ve not had a response. 

For example, are we able to use screenshots from major news sites? If not then we wont be able to review newspaper websites, as well as new iPhone and iPad apps. This seems crazy, from where I’m sitting.

What about quotes? When I was a rookie reporter my editor told me about a 50-word rule, whereby you could use 50-word extracts without having anything to worry about. But is that too much? Is one word too much? And if newspapers don’t source quotes and filch them from other news sites then why do we have to abide by this rule?

And finally, what about that weird business about not using text extracts to explain what the link is? Does that apply to headlines? In summer the UK High Court ruled that, for the first time in 200 years, headlines are copyrightable. The implications there are as broad as they are bizarre.

What we’ve done about it

We’re still waiting for some answers, but in the meantime we have stopped linking to UK newspaper websites

The issue centres around the fact that we’re not afraid of using meaningful anchor text to describe links accurately. Sometimes we’ll use the full headline. Anybody who has ever written a well-considered headline with the hope of attracting a few links will realise just how ridiculous this is. These are precisely the kind of links a newspaper should want to attract from sites like Econsultancy.

I’d love to know what the in-house SEO managers think about that. In my view the NLA is repeatedly shooting them in the feet. 

In addition, from now on we won’t review any revamped newspaper websites, nor their new mobile or tablet apps. This is a shame, and obviously ridiculous from a PR and SEO perspective. 

Irony overkill

Here’s what I really can’t stand: the vast dollops of irony. The majority of national newspapers in the UK are as abysmal at linking to sources as they are to crediting sources and pictures. There’s a systematic culture of pretence, and in some cases of outright theft. 

This morning I read an article that highlighted more bad practice at the holier than thou Daily Mail. Great sleuthing from Tim ‘Bloggerheads’ Ireland revealed how the Mail had scanned and published a picture of a business card from The Guardian. No credit, no permission. Maybe the Mail has a ‘newspaper copyright licence’, which allows it to do this? 

This is pretty much standard behaviour among the major UK newspapers. Never beg, sometimes borrow, and steal if you want to. The Mail in particular has a poor record, though it isn’t alone in doing what it pleases. By way of proof, here are 10 examples of alleged copyright infringement by the Mail, which uses pictures from amateur photographers without permission simply – it seems – because it can:

1. Steve Leachen

2. Alice Taylor (Cory Doctorow’s wife)

3. Danny Sullivan

4. Giles Turnbull

5. Emily James

6. Aidan McManus

7. Aaron Peters’ friend

8. Clive Flint

9. Howard Owens

10. ‘Burlsey’

Just like the newspapers, copyright is in critical condition

All of the above is shocking, but the ultimate insult here is that the newspapers are on the one hand insisting – via the loose threats and nebulous guidelines issued by the NLA – that everybody should respect copyright, while they themselves systematically debase it. 

The newspapers are in utter disarray. They spend a fortune on SEO and they want links. Yet the NLA attempts to charge us for linking to them in the way they want to be linked to. It’s not just going to happen.

Let’s be clear: this licensing business is a wrong-headed shakedown by firms that do not possess the moral high ground. That belongs to the people who respect copyright, as most right-minded publishers and bloggers do. Furthermore, many of the rules and demands are counter-productive. There needs to be a rethink.

I resent being asked to pay to link to publishers on general principles. We used to link to publishers because we thought it was the right thing to do. But to be asked to pay to link to publishers who do not show the slightest respect for copyright is as laughable as it is indefensible. 

Don’t you think?


The NLA’s Andrew Hughes has been in touch to clarify various points, the core one being that Econsultancy doesn’t actually need a licence. He said that the NLA’s remit is to licence “B2B media monitoring services and their users, and also to cover corporate copying of newspaper material (both print and web)”. That represents around 10,000 UK businesses, so it’s a fairly small niche. 

Andrew said:

We do not seek a wider role and we certainly don’t want to get near editorial functions, for all the reasons you mention. We note that Meltwater, PRCA and others have tried to suggest the recent court rulings imply NLA is on some wider mission to criminalise web users. Nothing could be further from the truth. Where companies profit directly from sale of newspaper material we offer a simple licence solution. Otherwise we are absent from the debate.”

So these licences only come into force for companies with a business model that involves copying, or perhaps larger organisations that save money from copying content from newspapers. As such publishers like Econsultancy appear to be exempt. 

A summary of what is and isn’t acceptable:

a. Making personal links to website pages for reference is acceptable;

b. Sending links is usually acceptable, except for commercial gain. Sending a link to a colleague / friend is usually fine, as is putting a link to an article on an intranet or website.

c. Regularly sending links as part of your paid work (e.g. monitoring websites for a client or manager) requires a licence.

d. Making copies of the content of newspaper website content (eg multiple prints, PDFs, etc) requires publisher permission.

e. Making copies of newspaper website content in the course of wider activity (for example building a commercial computer index) would require a licence, even if the content was not sent to a third party.

[Image by psd via Flickr, various rights reserved. See, that really wasn’t too difficult, was it?]