Yesterday, Colorado Pols, Denver's preeminent political website, published a legal-action-threatening piece revealing that it had received a letter from attorney Christopher Beall, representing Denver Post owner MediaNews Group and two other newspaper companies. The allegation? That Colorado Pols has been stealing his clients' content by using too much of it in blog posts.
Colorado Pols' Jason Bane responds, "We don't need the Denver Post. Nobody does."
The letter, dated May 21 and signed by Beall on behalf of MediaNews Group, Freedom Communications (owner of the Colorado Springs Gazette) and Swift Communications (owner of the Greeley Tribune), declares in part:
Your publication's wholesale, and unjustified, use of the news content published by our clients, which is produced at significant expense by them and from which your firm is deriving advertising revenue everyday without our clients' permission and without any compensation to our clients by your firm, constitutes multiple violations of our clients' rights under the federal Copyright Act and the common law doctrine of hot news misappropriation.
That's followed by a list of Colorado Pols posts that used between three and eight paragraphs from assorted articles published by the Post, etc. According to Beall, the escalating amount of text cropping up in such items prompted the letter.
"There had been a gentleman's understanding between the political desk at the Post that Colorado Pols would take no more than two paragraphs" from articles it was referencing, Beall says. "That had been the Post's expectation and understanding. But at some point this year, it appeared to the Post that something had changed, and Colorado Pols had been going well beyond two paragraphs."
Beall maintains that the Post and the other newspapers he represents weren't seeing a page-view bump from Colorado Pols links.
"I know they take umbrage at that point of my letter -- that there's really no discernible traffic because of their excerpting from our newspapers on their site," he concedes. "But I'm here to tell you, there wasn't any. We've looked at the metrics, and the excerpting with a link wasn't causing traffic to come to our site."
One possible reason: The site was grabbing so much text that "people were getting whatever news value there was from the portion being excerpted from Colorado Pols," Beall surmises. "So they got their information from a site that was generating ad revenue for Colorado Pols. And that's the fundamental problem -- and it's the problem with all news aggregators. It's fine to say, 'We gave you a credit,' and build a link. But at the end of the day, one website is making money off the work of another website, and that's not fair."
Bane's response upon hearing these statements is a mixture of surprise, amusement and exasperation. He says there was no "gentlemen's agreement" of the sort Beall describes in regard to the amount of text Colorado Pols might use: "That's the first I've heard of that," he says.
He also disputes the assertion about negligible traffic from Colorado Pols back to the Post and the other newspapers.
"If that were true, it would mean you'd have a better chance of getting hit by lightning than getting a link-through to the Denver Post," he maintains. "We had close to 700,000 page views in April, and they're saying five or six people clicked on one of their links? That just doesn't make sense. We don't have the numbers, because we don't track outgoing links; the software to do that is really expensive. But the average banner ad click-through rate is, I think, something like 2 to 3 percent. A link isn't a banner ad, but no traffic at all just isn't plausible."
Whatever the case, Beall says the letter had the desired effect, with Colorado Pols ceasing to use big chunks of articles from the papers he represents. He thought the matter was closed until yesterday, when the site published the item linked above in what he suspects was "some kind of fit of anger."
Bane sees this last statement as ridiculous: "To say we did this in a fit of anger: Look, we didn't send the letter, we didn't call the attorney. They're the ones who are overreacting."
Why the gap between the late May arrival of the letter and the July 7 item? Among other things, Bane says it took the Pols crew a while to find an attorney, Holland & Hart's Ian O'Neill, who'd represent them pro bono. O'Neill recommended that Colorado Pols stop using the Post or any of the other newspapers as they worked toward developing a strategy -- a decision that led to an unexpected discovery.
"We haven't linked to the Post in six weeks and nobody even noticed," he says. "Nobody mentioned it online. And that bears out what we're saying. It's not like the Denver Post is the only news outlet reporting that Dan Maes beat Scott McInnis at the state assembly. It's not secret information."
In Bane's view, traditional newspapers "have two ways to go. They can do what the Post is doing, or they can embrace the idea of the Internet, and understand the 'inter' part of that word by connecting to other sites."
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Problem is, "a lot of older organizations don't understand that it's not just about direct traffic. The number of organizations linking through is one way Google understands a site is relevant. That's something the majority of news organizations understand. But I guess the Post is the exception.
"The Denver Post and these other outlets think they're so valuable that websites like Colorado Pols have to link to them, have to use their content. But there are so many outlets out there, and so many people out there discussing the same things. Which isn't to say they don't provide value. But it doesn't mean anything to the future of Colorado Pols to not use their content."
With that in mind, Bane sees the letter less as an attempt to address a legitimate issue as "a realization of their irrelevance."