Is Linking Something That You Should Have To Pay For?

    March 11, 2012
    Chris Crum

Should you have to pay to link? Sadly, it’s a question we keep having to ask, because organizations and lawmakers keep giving us reason to. If you’re a longtime reader, you probably already know my stance on this: the web is based on pages freely linking to each other, and when barriers are set up that impede that, it makes for a broken web.

Should any person, organization or aggregation service have to pay to link to content for any reason? Let us know what you think in the comments.

In October, we ran an article with the very title: “Should You Have To Pay To Link?” Back then, it was about Central European News (CEN), a media organization that provides news, images, research, etc. to various media outlets, for money. CEN had sent payment invoices to The Huffington Post, simply because the site was linking to sources (such as The Daily Mail), which had paid for CEN’s content.

A couple years ago, there was the whole thing with News Corp. blocking search engine/news aggregator from using/linking to its content. NewsNow founder Struan Bartlett had this to say at the time:

It also led to the creation of the “Right To Link campaign“.

A more recent example of some interesting linking policy would be this one from Lowe’s. They require sites that link to (I’m not sure what the legal grounds here are) to fill out a form and get permission first. This is done by fax. Yes, fax.

The latest incident comes in the form of proposed legislation from German lawmakers, who reportedly seek to enable content creators to charge aggregation services for using snippets, for as long as lone year. The Register points to an official document about the proposed law (in German).

It’s unclear whether we’re only talking about the actual snippets, or if that includes the titles. According to the Register’s report, aggregators may be forced to pay license fees, but if if the titles (which are essentially links), aren’t included, aggregators should be able to display titles/links without snippets, without having to pay. If such a law goes into effect, it would probably make more sense to do this, for most aggregation services, though user experience could be damaged.

Of course, there’s one news aggregation service that we know is all about user experience (at least at the PR level) – Google (and Google News). Would Google pay to provide snippets? If titles/links are included, that’s a whole different ballgame, and in fact is really where the bulk of this threat to the web comes in.

If we’re talking about titles, which are essentially links, we’re talking about having to pay to link to something. Even if this is only at a news aggregation service level, it’s a dangerous precedent to set, given that the web at large is based on linking. There are no clear lines when you’re talking about the subject of news aggregation – particularly in the age of user-generated content and social media. I mean, what if you create a Twitter list of accounts from news agencies, and share that with your friends, for example?

For that matter, the lines between what should actually be considered a news source are pretty gray too, when you’re talking about blogs, social media and citizen journalism. Laws like this would have to be governed by interpretation, and any interpretation – right or wrong – could have tremendous effects on the web, and really, society.

And let’s not forget, that while a law may be designed to govern the people and companies of a country, the web is worldwide. Linking knows no geographical boundaries.

When you’re talking about how an aggregator like Google News delivers results, how is it any different than how Google itself delivers results. It’s still about snippets and links. Such government control could not only jeopardize current news aggregation practices, but how search, as we know it, works.

Matthew Ingram, who writes for GigaOm these days writes a lot about this kind of stuff, and often makes great points about the state of journalism, and the whole citizen journalism/traditional media debate. As he presents it, aggregation and curation are synonyms, for all intents and purposes, and I agree. But curation can not only come from a system like Google News or a Techmeme. It can come from a news publication itself. It can come from a single person using any publishing format on the web. That means it could be a blog, a Google+ account, a Twitter account, a Twitter list, a Facebook account or whatever. Facebook even has a new interest lists feature.

The point is, it’s all about the following you have, as to how much that contributes to content being consumed by its audience.

So laws like this could jeopardize how we use social media too. But more than that – they could jeopardize how people use the web. It’s why the publishing world wants the paid app model (like The Daily) to succeed so well, but that model will never pan out to its full potential as long as that pesky web is around – a tap away via your phone or tablet’s browser. Perhaps news organizations should start lobbying for the death of the web browser. That would go over well.

Links are the web. The web is links. Links are what keeps the web alive, and are the reason we have not all been completely consumed into closed app ecosystems (though we certainly spend more of our time there than ever).

One thing that continues to baffle me, is that so many publishers and news organizations are still so opposed to how the web works. Links gain you more exposure. There are legitimate points on the other side of the argument, but the fact is that links give more people more opportunities to read your content, and if they’re not reading your content, they’re just going to read someone else’s – someone that has figured out a better way to monetize their content – perhaps someone that doen’t care about monetizing their content. Regardless, it’s not benefiting you.

Of course, all efforts to see “aggregators” paying to link aren’t being driven by governments. News organizations (The AP, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gazzette, McClatchy, and numerous others) have banded together to form NewsRight, a collaboration designed to find ways of getting aggregators to pay. I haven’t heard a lot of success stories about that one yet.

Do you think news organizations should be charging “aggregators” for linking? Even snippets? Let us know what you think.

By the way, if you’re a content creator, curator or aggregator, and you feel your audience is or could be interested in this topic, please feel free to link to this article. As a bonus, we’ll even let you throw in a snippet.


Chris Crum
Chris Crum has been a part of the WebProNews team and the iEntry Network of B2B Publications since 2003. Follow Chris on Twitter, on StumbleUpon, on Pinterest and/or on Google: +Chris Crum.