News aggregation: Quick Primer on Legality and Best Practices

The Citizen Media Law Project has just issued a white paper entitled The Rise of the News Aggregator: Legal Implications and Best Practices.

The 29 page report, available in pdf format, outlines current legal issues related to news aggregation on the web and provides a manual of best practices that should be carefully read by anyone developing, running or contemplating a news aggregation site.

First of all, let's clarify the stakes. According to the report:

As the traditional media are quick to point out,
the legality of a business model built
around the monetization of third-party
content isn’t merely an academic question
– it’s big business. Revenues generated
from online advertising totaled $23.4
billion in 2008 alone.

I had to laugh when I read this. Does anyone besides me remember the vicious flamewars of 1995 about the possibility of, shudder, commercial use of the internet. So, the stakes are enormous, the ground is being contested and there is a relatively high level of uncertainty as to the outcome. Traditional media is being challenged on a number of fronts by online aggregators of all sorts. The details are all important, and in developing a news aggregation strategy it is essential to carefully read an excellent summary report such as this one in its entirety.

Nonetheless, here is a cheat sheet from the study that summarizes best practices:

If you are the creator of a news aggregation website, what should you do to protect yourself against lawsuits? Short of licensing all of the content you use, there are certain best practices that you can adopt that are likely to reduce your legal risk. 

Reproduce only those portions of the headline or article that are necessary to make your point or to identify the story. Do not reproduce the story in its entirety.

Try not to use all, or even the majority, of articles available from a single source. Limit yourself to those articles that are directly relevant to your audience.

Prominently identify the source of the article.

Whenever possible, link to the original source of the article.

When possible, provide context or commentary for the material you use.

Also, we'll add that one of the best practices is to not take away incentive for readers to go to the original source. And in that spirit we'll recommend you download the pdf and be sure not to miss their handy best practices summary on page 21.

Mainsail through time