Paris Center Stories: Will Slauter, Society of Fellows Alum

Will Slauter is a historian of media and copyright, an Associate Professor at Université Paris Diderot, and a former fellow of the Society of Fellows in the Humanities at Columbia University.

Sinéad McCausland
June 07, 2019

On 12 February 2019, Columbia Global Centers | Paris hosted a conference to mark the publication of Slauter’s book, Who Owns the News?: A History of Copyright.  In conversation with economist Julia Cagé, Antoine Lilti of the EHESS, and Institute for Ideas & Imagination fellow Jenny Davidson, Slauter discussed the history of efforts to control the republication of news in the United States and the United Kingdom. Will Slauter will be returning to Reid Hall on the 20 and 21 June as co-organizer of a conference on “Art, Copyright Law, and the Circulation of Images in the Nineteenth Century”

Below is an interview with Slauter in which he gives a brief history of copyright law, the different forms of news since the sixteenth century, and technology’s role in how readers consume their news today.

Has news always been protected by copyright?

It took a very long time for copyright law to explicitly protect newspapers. And we need to distinguish between newspapers as collective works and the various kinds of articles or contributions that are published in newspapers. Over time, in both Britain and the United States, the struggle to protect news has involved several questions. One question was whether newspapers were eligible for copyright at all. Another was whether everything that appeared in the newspaper would receive the same protection.  Fiction, poetry, and longer investigative pieces that clearly have an author might be protected, whereas lists of prices and short factual bulletins might not be, or people might think they should not be.

What I found when I started to look into this subject was that it was not at all obvious for people in the eighteenth, nineteenth, or early twentieth centuries that newspapers should be treated the same way as books, and then, if you did protect newspapers, would you protect everything in the newspaper or just certain parts of it?


Could you discuss the different forms that news has taken over time?

The book begins in the sixteenth century when newspapers didn’t exist yet. One of the reasons that I start so early is to show that there were lots of different forms of news. First of all, there’s the oral news that people exchanged. Then there’s news that people sent in private letters without the intention of making it public. And in the category of published news, or news that is destined for some kind of wider readership, there were also different forms. There were manuscript newsletters that were actually sold to subscribers; they were an elite form of publication that merchants, diplomats, country squires, and members of Parliament were interested in subscribing to because it gave them bulletins of news from various cities that they couldn’t find anywhere else. There were also pamphlets there were printed quickly and distributed for a wider audience, and they might recount a single event, such as a flood or a battle. News was also sung in the form of ballads, and the text of these ballads was printed on paper and sold to people in the street.

Newspapers were not common at all during this time, largely for reasons of censorship. But, in 1695, there was a basic legislative change in England where the press licensing act lapsed. From that point on, in England and later in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, you didn’t have to have permission to print a newspaper anymore. So, newspapers provided a new way of publishing news. They were published on a regular basis, at first every week, and later everyday, and they were compilations that would take news from various places, some of which had been published already, some of which was fresh, that the editor had gathered locally or that a reader had sent in. The distinctive thing about newspapers is that they are published on a regular schedule. They have all kinds of texts in them, and when it comes to trying to decide who owns those texts or who gets to control them, it’s much more complicated than it would be for a book.

It’s hard to pin down a specific person who controls the news. You could say it’s the editor, because they decide what pieces go in and who writes them.

You could decide that it’s the editor; you could decide that the authors of each piece would have rights over that piece. You could decide that the publisher or owner of the newspaper should get the rights because he or she puts the investment into it and coordinates the whole process. Now, all of these arguments have been made over time. But newspaper editors didn’t think about copyright very much for most of the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.

That was one of the questions of my book: did copyright really matter for the publication of news? What were some of the arguments for and against protecting news with copyright? I found that these debates came up repeatedly over time, and similar questions are still being debated today.

A lot of people get their news from Twitter and Facebook rather than going to the source of the article, so it’s an algorithm deciding what you read.

I would say that that’s not so much a copyright problem but it is certainly troublesome that algorithms can choose what news we get. If you think about it historically, it’s pretty interesting. One of the things I talk about in the book is the importance of periodicity, the importance of having a weekly newspaper, which works at a different rhythm than a daily newspaper. The interval between publication is important for giving some space and time to reflect. Periodicity can sometimes enable a step back – that’s one technique for managing the flow of news.

And what do we have now as a technique for managing the flow of information? Well, we have algorithms, because there is so much information out there. Instead of going to libraries, the majority of us now go to Google and type things in. It’s remarkably efficient and it’s a way of managing the massive amounts of information. It’s gratifying, it’s quick, and it’s fairly effective. We get a lot of the information we want, but there is a sentiment that we are relying on the algorithms to do the work of filtering and selection and compilation, and a lot of that stuff was done manually before. The question is, is this what we want? A lot of people have faith that we can just keep changing the algorithm and we’ll find the right one.

Isn’t there an argument to be made that maybe Facebook owns the news?

I thought of putting a line in my book somewhere to the effect that one answer to the question ‘who owns the news today?’ could be Facebook because that is the place where so many people go to find their news. The fact is that Facebook does exert tremendous control. It is not as though Mark Zuckerberg or his executives are deciding what you’re going to read, but the decisions that they make about the way the platform is configured do ultimately determine what you’re going to see first.

It’s very useful to have the historical perspective because a newspaper was a single product, sheets of paper that were printed and folded, and on that paper was a hierarchy composed by the editor and publisher, and the decisions that were made were human decisions. The advertising was printed directly on there, so it wasn’t all about finding a particularly sensational article that would travel well on the web. But now even professional journalists have to write articles that will travel well, that will get engagement and get clicks.

News publishers are still figuring out how to best deal with Facebook and Google. In Europe some of them support a change to copyright law that they say would better enable them to control how the big Internet companies use their content. This is article 11 of the new European copyright directive. The goal of this mechanism is to provide more revenue for publishers so that they can hire more journalists so they can produce better journalism and original reporting. I’m sceptical that the amount of money that would eventually be involved in these collective licenses would be anywhere near the amount that has been lost due to the massive decline in advertising revenue collected by news publishers. But there are other models for financing journalism, including the membership model (where subscribers can feel more involved in the process), the donation model (The Guardian in the UK does this), and philanthropy – wealthy patrons who donate money to support journalism.

But this goes back to the question of who owns the news again. If you have a wealthy person donating money to a news organisation, they may have a political agenda. Jeff Bezos, for example, bought the Washington Post.

Bezos is an example of somebody who has put a lot of cash into the news, and people would say that the Washington Post is a lot better than it was a few years ago, and so Bezos seems like a somewhat benign patron. But the very fact that he is the head of Amazon raises a lot of questions about the relationship between the commercial side of Amazon and the company as a content producer, so there’s a lot of potential conflict of interest.

And another problem is the online news organisations that have folded or laid off staff, for example Buzzfeed News, and where the writers’ pieces go once the site has gone offline, or whether journalists own their writing after being laid off from an online news site.

This problem is not new either. News has always been perceived as ephemeral. What happens when people throw newspapers away?