TMZ's scoop was soon picked up by every major media outlet -- online and otherwise -- in the country. But some industry watchers are floating a proposal to revise copyright law in a way that could prevent this type of news distribution in the future.
Earlier this week, influential federal appellate judge Richard Posner argued that the future of journalism might require an expansion of copyright law. Specifically, he proposed banning Web sites from accessing, linking to or even paraphrasing copyrighted material without the owner's consent (found via Techdirt.)
Posner's not the only one mulling this idea. Last month, the Washington Post ran a controversial column by lawyers Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown that proposed similar ideas. Among other suggestions, Sanford and Brown recommended that search engines shouldn't be allowed to "crawl the Web and ingest everything in their path." The attorneys also suggested that Congress should act to ban "poaching," or one outlet "taking the guts of the content" originally published by another.
These ideas by Posner, Sanford and Brown, while presented under the guise of saving journalism, seem far more likely to cripple it instead. Currently, no one can claim copyright in information -- a legal principle that enables reporters, bloggers, academics, and others to build on and add to the work of other writers. TMZ might have broken the Michael Jackson news, but other reporters from competing outlets followed up on it. Similarly, three years ago TechCrunch broke the news that Google purchased YouTube, but The Wall Street Journal and other publications soon followed with their own stories.
The prospect that one publication could have exclusive rights to publish facts it uncovered is also at odds with free speech principles. It's hard to imagine that any newspaper executives sincerely believe it's a good idea for one company to have licensing rights over facts it reports first. Rather than saving journalism, that sounds like a recipe for killing it off for good.