Who Owns the News? a History of Copyright

From The IP Kat

Who Owns the News? A History of Copyright is the work of a historian, lawyer and novelist combined. With this book, Will Slauter takes us back to eighteenth-century Britain and America to retrace the development of censorship, regulation and copyright in news publishing. Whether you are a keen copyright historian or merely interested in contemporary debates about journalism, this book is for you.

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“Who Owns the News ?” delivers an account of the complex ways in which copyright emerged as a tool to control and claim agency over the news by authors, publishers and politicians. In doing so, the author stresses that copyright has only been one of many influences over the way by which ‘ownership’ has been claimed in news publishing.

Slauter describes how copyright was preceded and often superseded by a myriad of other regulations, conventions and practices specific to the trade of printing the news. The book also stresses that the relationship between the press and early copyright regulations was deeply context-sensitive. Consequently, the impact of copyright on the news industry played out very differently in Britain and the United States.

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Another central theme of the book is the changing attitudes within the news British and American news industries regarding “copying” content and protecting “exclusivity”. Speaking of news publication in Britain, Slauter describes how reprinting was, at first, a means to maintain anonymity and disguise authorship. The author writes

 some planted stories or mislabelled sources in an attempt to advance political financial goals, while others cherish the ability to assume a depersonalised voice in debates about culture, society, and government 

In short, “copying not only enabled the news to spread – it also facilitated commentary and analysis” .

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Moving to late eighteenth century America, Slauter depicts how the social and professional status of news editors evolved, and the extent to which their status reflected the fact that copying was an integral part of news publishing. As the printed press developed, news editors began to be seen and known as “scissors Editors”, as they would recycle publications by cutting, re-arranging and pasting content for republication by literally using scissors.

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In early America, the practice of copy/paste in news publishing went hand in hand with the exchange of copies between newspapers, whereby newspapers would share and exchange copies with each other to enable their republication in other journals. This practice saved newspapers the time and costs of re-typing and re-editing content (p. 89-91), enabling the news to be spread across the country more easily. A downside of these practices of “scissor editing” and copy exchange is that it sometimes muddled the source of the information.

Link to the rest at The IP Kat

1 thought on “Who Owns the News? a History of Copyright”

  1. “A downside of these practices of “scissor editing” and copy exchange is that it sometimes muddled the source of the information.”

    That’s still better than today’s ‘re-spinning it to say what we want it to’ that some news companies do.

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