Websites that scoop up content from the mainstream media without compensation are being put on notice: Pay up or risk being shut down.

The warning comes from Attributor, a California-based company that monitors web content on behalf of magazine, newspaper and book publishers.

Earlier this month, Attributor announced a “new model for online content syndication” called FairShare Guardian. It’s not designed to remove content from the web (at least not right away); instead, it aims to stop sites from making money from content that doesn’t belong to them.

According to Attributor, the problem is big and getting bigger. In one recent 30-day web scan, it identified more than 75,000 websites that featured 112,000 near-exact copies of unlicensed articles.

Attributor insists it is not targeting news aggregators and other sites that use passages from articles to augment other content. It says it respects the well-established principle of “fair use.”

The sites that Attributor is going after are those that consistently (more than ten times per month) include pages that contain more than 80 percent of unlicensed content with a minimum length of 125 words.

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

Once identified, offending sites receive a notice asking them if they have permission to use the article in question. If not, they will be asked “if they would like to enter into a discussion about fair compensation for syndicating the content.”

If those discussions fail to come to a happy ending, Attributor will up the ante. It contacts advertising agencies and networks that serve the sites, as well as search engines and Internet service providers, and informs them of the copyright violations.

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Under the provisions of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, search engines and hosting services are required to take down material they know to be in violation of copyright, although the offending site has the right to file a counter claim.

Attributor is betting that, faced with the prospect of losing their advertising revenue, their search rank, and even their access to the web, most sites will decide that the company’s offer to negotiate a license fee is an offer they can’t refuse.

Attributor insists their goal is not to restrict the public’s access to web content. “We’re motivated by the prospect of a thriving online content economy,” the company said in its release, “in which content is shared openly and spread freely, with an infrastructure that supports and fairly compensates content owners and creators…This is about the economy of content and the ads that support it, not the content itself. We trust this is abundantly clear.”

Well, maybe.

Most people would agree that, on a philosophical level, it is not a good thing to profit from someone’s labor without sharing some of that wealth with them. And if Attributor’s new content syndication model was only targeted at well-financed sites with healthy ad revenues, it would be hard to argue against its fundamental fairness.

But the reality is that most sites have no steady revenue stream, and therefore no way of negotiating a license fee. The only option for them would be to remove the offending content from their sites.

Content vs. Link Economy

That does not sit well with those who believe that the “link economy” is the key to the web, and who reject any effort to limit access to its content.

For them, Attributor’s plan to “manage” content smacks of the record industry’s misguided attempts to go after individuals who download music without paying for it, or the efforts by the Associated Press in 2008 to get a popular website to remove AP content because they thought the site was using too much of their material.

Media commentator and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who also writes the popular blog BuzzMachine believes these disputes highlight the clash between the new “link economy” and the old “content economy.”

According to Jarvis, links can be more valuable than content on the web. “Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money,” he wrote.

By that logic, anyone who attempts to limit the dissemination of their content is being short-sighted. In the long run, there’s more money to be made by spreading your work as widely as possible across the web, than by restricting it to those who can afford to pay for its use.

But most publishers aren’t ready to accept that idea. For them, the issue is still about regaining control over their online content, and receiving compensation from people who they believe are abusing the notion of fair use.

About a dozen publishers, including Reuters, have signed up for a 90-day trial period with Attributor’s FairShare Guardian.

Clearly, the debate over who gets to control content on the web will last far longer than that.

Image of burglar via Attributor

Ira Basen is a former senior producer at CBC’s Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of programs including The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles (2007) and News 2.0 (2009). His writing has appeared in Saturday Night, The Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He currently teaches at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists.

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This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.