News organisations have had to grapple with seismic change since the advent of the internet. And none more so than the Financial Times which over the past five years has changed its business model. As one of the first news organisations to restrict access to its web content through metering and make that content available only to subscribers, it has had to wrestle with copyright issues and enforcement. Furthermore, it is now confronting an entirely new environment in social media.
“Our business is built around IP law, and copyright is at the heart of that,” says FT general counsel Tim Bratton. And indeed, as one might expect, all FT content – whether delivered in newspaper or magazine format, via mobile or on third-party platforms – is protected by copyright.
But the growth of social media has called for a more flexible approach that is in tune with the change of relationship between newspapers and readers; no longer does a newspaper hand down views to be passively digested.
“For us as a news organisation, it’s about having a conversation with your audience,” says Bratton. “If you’re not having that conversation, the conversation will go somewhere else.”
This shift requires a finely calibrated approach to copyright that takes account of social media innovation but is still able to sit comfortably with the organisation’s commercial objectives.
From 2007, the FT set up a metering system that allows registered users to view up to 10 free articles per month before they are asked to subscribe to the site. FT.com now has more than 3.2 million registered users and around 200,000 paid subscribers. Policing that copyright has a direct impact on the bottom line. According to a report by paidContent.co.uk, FT Publishing made £130m from digital in 2009, when it finished the year with 120,500 digital subscriptions, largely to corporates. As of February this year, 20 per cent of new weekly subscriptions were coming through mobile channels, with the FT iPad app generating more than £1m in advertising revenue since it was launched in May 2010, accounting for 10 per cent of the paper’s new digital subscriptions.
“Our copyright policy is based on engagement with users and potential users,” notes Bratton.
Certainly, the FT terms and conditions take account of the new digital dynamic. “We recognise that users of the internet want to share information with others,” they state. “We therefore permit limited republishing and redistribution of FT content as set out below, provided that this does not create a substitute for FT’s own products or services.”
The emphasis on collaborating with users – something that the FT, with its large number of corporate subscribers, is well-placed
to do compared with news organisations that rely on a news stand readership – pervades its terms and conditions. The FT allows users to disclose that misuse has occurred as long as they rectify it by acquiring an appropriate licence.
“Our objective there would be to put a commercial relationship in place with us,” says Bratton. “It’s all about engagement. There’s a recognition that relying on lawsuits to get people to pay for your content isn’t a good business development tool.”
Embracing social media
This is not to say that the FT does not defend its copyright robustly, particularly since it has changed tack from its earlier policy that allowed other news providers to sell its content to third parties for a fee. The organisation now has a system where it sells content direct to its consumers.
“The new model is that a partner in a law firm can’t access FT.com unless that firm has a direct contract with us,” explains Bratton. This allows the FT to retain absolute control over its content. As the newspaper’s editor Lionel Barber put it in his Hugh Cudlipp lecture in January this year:
“We aggressively pursue any party seeking through cookies or sharing of passwords to gain access to our content for free.”
In this context it might be imagined that the FT legal team would see social media as a difficult and disruptive force in copyright terms. But Bratton, who is one of the leading bloggers and tweeters in the commercial legal market, is adamant that social media does not threaten the FT commercial and legal model and should not be feared by organisations.
“The point of social media, with all its retweets and links, might seem to threaten us because there’s a perception with publishers that users can only use content within the paywall,” he says. “But we encourage people to distribute links and teaser content. And we also allow users the right, within certain parameters, to create and share limited abstracts of our content.”
Copyright is still guarded, but the FT has embraced social media as a limited tool without creating any legal headaches.
“It’s great for us if people want to retweet our links,” says Bratton, “because we can broaden the conversation we have with our readers.”
Top tips for social media Copyright: Twitter, Facebook and YouTube are built on a multitude of copyright licences and sub-licences. These channels bring a wider audience, but there
is a loss of control. So businesses should only publish content they are happy to see widely redistributed.
User-generated content (UGC): Publishers can be liable for third-party content on their sites. Risks can be mitigated with monitoring and complaints policies. You cannot ignore a complaint just because you didn’t publish or monitor the UGC that prompted the complaint.
Libel/contempt: Publishing via social media brings the same legal issues as publishing in print, but with more scope for fast republication and dissemination of a badly judged comment. Don’t say anything on social media you wouldn’t say via more traditional media.
Brand: Brand damage can be felt quickly if a disgruntled or careless employee says something inappropriate via social media. Risks can be mitigated with staff guidelines. Ensure guidelines do not turn into over-lawyered rulebooks that are unworkable in practice.
Online behavioural advertising (OBA): This is data protection 2.0 in practice. The law is built on a mishmash of UK and EU laws, none of which provides a clear answer as to whether users must actively opt-in to OBA or whether a browser-enabled opt-out will suffice. Hopefully an industry standard will be adopted that protects users while facilitating the business opportunities of OBA.
Confidence: The law of confidence applies equally online. Businesses and users must ensure that the relaxed online environment does not lull them into revealing information about their own business, that is confidential.