In any dispute between the British Library and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation it ought to be clear who the good guys are. After all the former is venerable institution devoted to research and learning; the latter a media empire built on tabloid excess, partisan broadcasting and exposés of minor British royals.
And that’s how most commentators painted the situation last week when News Corporation chief James Murdoch lashed out at British Library plans to digitise their newspaper collection and make the results available online.
What a pity life’s not that simple.
The digitisation of the library’s 40 million newspaper pages is to be administered by brightsolid, a division of Scottish publisher DC Thomson. The British Library unsurprisingly presented the move as entirely altruistic: an “innovative deal that will help safeguard the future of the world’s greatest newspaper archive”. Murdoch’s assessment was blunt, and far more honest: “This is not simply being done for posterity, nor to make free access for library users easier, but also for commercial gain via a paid for website.”
Murdoch’s comments, made during a speech to mark the 300th anniversary of UK copyright law, were immediately attacked by a motley assortment of failed newspapers, freetard bloggers and others who ought to know better. In the Guardian Roy Greenslade answered his own question – “what has the British Library done to upset James Murdoch?” – with the words “its job”.
But there’s a world of difference between the job of archiving a limited number of copies of a publication made available for free to anyone who wants to read them, and distributing an infinite number of copies of that same publication to anyone who can afford to pay whatever you choose to charge. Only the Register grasped the true nature of the British Library plan, that it’s really a state-granted commercial monopoly in the finest traditions of the British Empire. And if there’s one thing the Murdochs don’t like, it’s a monopoly they don’t own.
The situation allowed James Murdoch to portray himself as a defender of copyright, but that’s only half true at best: while appearing as the champion of creators’ rights, he was really speaking on behalf of newspaper publishers, not their contributors. The Murdochs are not copyright ideologues, they’re only interested in the bottom line: and like other media corporations they spend much time aggressively defending their own copyright while simultaneously trying to wrest the same right from individual creators.
Last week’s argument was sustained by cant and hypocrisy on both sides. It’s entirely probable that News Corporation would have been delighted with the British Library scheme were it to be run by them. And those who denounced Murdoch’s comments would doubtless have howled with outrage had that been the case. Most were simply engaged in a lazy exercise in Murdoch-bashing, best summed up in one blogger’s comment: “If Murdoch’s against it, it must be a good thing”. But by that logic if a Murdoch company administered it the British Library scheme would automatically be a bad thing.
And despite what’s said in public, News Corporation and the British Library aren’t going to be slugging it out in court. Just as father Rupert has been publicly lambasting Google while negotiating with them in private, so son James later admitted there is “a dialogue with the library” about their plans. In other words, one way or another a deal will be done.
The problem there is that the content of the Murdoch papers isn’t necessarily theirs to give away. In common with most publishers they own the rights to the final product, but not all the content: however that’s not likely to stand in the way of either party if they can agree on a way to cash in.
So while the British Library portrayed their plan as a way of broadening access to the newspaper archive, and Murdoch bigged himself up as a defender of copyright, the reality is altogether more sordid. In truth the squabble is a near-perfect example of Big Culture and Big Media fighting over possession of something that doesn’t belong to them in the first place.