Will changes to the Copyright Act protect the fortunes of India’s newspapers?

In times of declining ad revenue, it might solve the problem of Google and Facebook ‘using’ news content without a licence.

ByPrashant Reddy T
Will changes to the Copyright Act protect the fortunes of India’s newspapers?
Anubhooti Gupta
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Eight years after the last amendment to the Copyright Act, the government is once again inviting suggestions for reforms to India’s copyright law. As usual, much of these consultations are happening behind closed doors, with invitations being extended only to select stakeholders.

The current round of reforms is rumoured to be driven mostly by the music industry, which has been in the grip of a bruising internecine struggle between music labels and the songwriters and music composers. There are, however, other important areas of copyright law, such as the fortunes of Indian newspapers, which also deserves urgent attention from policymakers.

The traditional business model for newspapers has been advertising revenue which in itself is linked to the circulation of the newspaper. Newspapers in the west have been collapsing over the last decade, because news consumption has been shifting to the internet, where these publications cannot compete with Google and Facebook for advertisements. Indian newspapers continued to thrive during this period because of poor internet penetration in the country.

This is likely to change very quickly with the rapid increase in internet penetration in India over the last few years, thanks to rock-bottom mobile data prices. It is only a matter of time before increased internet penetration leads to decreased circulation of newspapers in India, which will also mean a decline in traditional print advertising revenues. In fact, it is very likely that the Indian market for print advertisements will simply collapse over the next few years.

Theoretically, newspapers should be able to make up their lost print advertising revenues through online advertising. However, the online advertising market requires investments in technology and vast volumes of personal data to create targeted advertisements. It is unlikely that Indian newspapers will be able to compete with Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook for a slice of the online advertising market.

Not only do Google and Facebook have a significant share of the online advertising market in India, they also control a significant share of traffic to the websites of Indian newspapers. A Reuters report on the digital news market in India estimated that 32 percent of the English news audience accessed news through search engines, and 24 percent through various kinds of social media. Not only does this give Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook overwhelming control over traffic to the websites of Indian newspapers, it also gives them a unique insight into the personal preferences of Indian citizens, which will then be used to tailor even better advertisements.

So, where does this leave the fourth pillar of Indian democracy?

Taking cognizance of declining advertising revenues, many Indian newspapers are experimenting with subscription models. But the jury is still out on whether this will work for legacy print media. Without assured revenues, Indian newspapers — which are already beset by a unique set of regulations like the wage board for journalists — will have to further reduce the number of reporters out in the field, thereby affecting the quality of reporting.

All of this is bad news for Indian democracy. Despite the constant demonisation of journalists by the governing establishment, newspapers remain critical to the information ecosystem in India. None of the new digital news startups can come close to the reporting networks of the legacy press and it is absolutely vital to assure their continued viability in order to ensure that we, as an electorate, are better informed.

One possible answer to these problems is an option already implemented in the European Union in 2019: a new copyright law that provided “publishers of press publications” with a new “neighbouring right” to control the “online use of their publications”. This means that news publishers in Europe can now sue online platforms like Google News and Facebook for “using” their content without first seeking a licence. Just to be clear, the mere act of hyperlinking will not be covered under this law.

This new press publication right was created because it was felt that Silicon Valley platforms were benefiting significantly from the practice of hosting and sharing news reports on their platforms. Traffic to Google News and Facebook is driven extensively by people wanting to access or share news stories. Traditional copyright law did not cover such usage, where a platform linked to a news website and displayed only a small excerpt of the news story. In this backdrop, it did make sense to create a new right that allowed European press publications to monetise the practice. This fits into one of the traditional “Lockean” justifications of copyright law, ie people are entitled to the fruits of their labour.

When the Europeans first made this proposal, it was met with ferocious opposition from technology platforms who dubbed the proposal as a “link tax” and painted a picture of imminent doom for the internet. Nevertheless, the European Union passed the law, allowing individual European countries to enact their own domestic laws laying out the details. As a result, in some jurisdictions like France, news publishers have entered into an agreement with Google for royalty payments after much reluctance and scrutiny from French competition regulators.

To be clear, nobody really knows how this will play out in the long run and whether this revenue stream for publications will be enough to offset the declining market for print advertising. It is possible that the future of the media is going to be in the style of Barkha Dutt’s Mojo, where small outfits consisting of only one or two journalists deliver news from across the country. However, it would be good to remember that it takes significant resources to hold corporations and governments accountable. Small media outfits cannot deliver the same results as a New York Times.

Only time will tell us the answer but at the very least, the copyright office should include this issue on its reform agenda and invite key stakeholders for a public discussion.

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