16 January 2013


  For a legal issue, copyright has stirred up plenty of emotions the past few weeks. Therein lies the problem--copyright is a right given by law, and a very complicated and confusing law at that. Infringement of copyright is not to be decided by crowd vote, taking sides, or accusations. Furthermore, it is not to be self-decided by a group of Irish newspapers, either. Infringement is ultimately defined by the legislature/government and enforced by the courts (in the US, Canada, and Europe).
     But, since copyright can be expensive to enforce, and difficult to understand, much of the self-policing is done by threats and demands. After all, who has the funds to pay for a top notch team of copyright legal experts? A threat to sue is usually enough to cause the common blogger or site owner to give in, even if that person has the legal right to copy.
     In the first recent incident, the mega genealogy site owner Cyndi Howells sued the mega genealogy site owner Barry Ewell for allegedly incorporating her database/information/site into his own online database/site/search function. Copyright is so complicated (and I am an attorney who has advised historical societies on copyright) and computer technology is so intricate, I am probably stating the issue too simplistically and with errors. Think how complicated those issues are, if simply stating them is filled with potential inaccuracies!  The only opinion that I will offer today is that Ms. Howells is going to be surprised at just how much information and data people can legally take from her web site, if current judicial precedent is followed by the court. Mr. Ewell is going to be surprised, and probably is so already, at how quickly and drastically whipped up emotion in the genealogy world can affect the situation. I have no prediction what the court will decide in what is, currently, a rather gray area of the law.
     In the second instance, the newspaper industry group the National Newspapers of Ireland (NNI), announced that its licensing arm would impose expensive fees for linking online to any of its members' articles. That is correct--not copying, but LINKING to a newspaper!  For unlicensed links, the penalties would be very expensive indeed. This policy makes the NNI into its own legislature, judge, and jury on copyright issues. I am not trained in Irish law, but any attorney around the world would smell a ripe legal issue here.
     However, since the NNI bullying is less expensive than a legal battle, but more effective,  I immediately removed any links in my posts that could cause the NNI to notice Deb writing in her little apartment in Toronto. I did so with a heavy heart, since most of those links led to fascinating articles in the Irish Times by John Grenham. The Irish Times has since announced that we can all link to their articles without fear of fee or penalty, but I am watching the situation before restoring the links. (Sorry, Mr. Grenham. I had a whole post on your columns waiting to be posted.).