Ben Bagdikian on the Internet and Publishing Rights

Ben Bagdikian discusses the Internet and Publishing Rights

April 17, 2002
Forum arranged by William Rodarmor and Jeanne Pimentel
Notes By Dawn Adams

Technology and publishing are inextricably intertwined, and the latest advance in communications, the Internet, is forcing all of us who make our living around words to adjust. Ben Bagdikian, author of several books, including The Media Monopoly, and former dean of the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, spoke to BAEF in April about the "colliding worlds of Internet and book publishing."

According to Bagdikian, a chief benefit for writers is the Internet's wealth of information and data, which allowed him to compress the publishing cycle on The Media Monopoly. "The Internet makes a very big difference to writers now," Bagdikian said. "The preface to this book [The Media Monopoly] would have taken at least twice as long without the Internet." But even with the more rapid time to press, a book is still obsolete the day it's published.

And it's not just the Internet—other technical advances such as the copy machine and the word processor have had their influence on writing and publishing as well. Between the two, carbon paper has become obsolete.

The availability of quick, cheap copies was one of the prime factors behind the development of the "fair use" concept. "People used the copier to put together readers for college classes," Bagdikian said. "A convention developed; publishers said that under "fair use" you can use a portion of something as long as it's not too long and it's not a substitute for the article itself."

But fair use is no longer an adequate rule in the digital age, said Bagdikian. "Everyone using a computer is an author, everyone with a printer a publisher," he said. "Definitions took on a new form and copyright is looked at differently."

The basic conditions for copyrighting were previously that the material had to be original and in fixed, physical form, according to Bagdikian. Also, authors could not copyright purely factual information (e.g., the square mileage of San Francisco), but rather analysis dealing with factual information (e.g., why such a small city as San Francisco has gained in power).

The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1988 was Congress's attempt to untangle some of the issues behind digital content. It grants copyright for the author's life plus 50 years. Bagdikian believes that as copyright violations are brought into the legal system, the law will evolve. "You can't do anything about copyright violation until it's discovered," he said. "Your work can be all over the world before you know. I think the digital act needs amending—it needs to make more clear what the individual should do to have legal proof of copyright acceptable in court."

For people who self-publish, it's especially important to be aware of copyright issues, according to Bagdikian. And because of the ease of self-publishing today, more and more authors use it for everything from memoirs to novels. "There is both an enormous opportunity for self-publishing, and also a need for people to protect intellectual property," he said. "On a computer it belongs to anyone who wants it; in hard copy, it can be copied very quickly."

Bagdikian published a book written by his older sister Lydia, who had kept notebook diaries about his family's departure from Armenia and the trials they suffered before moving to the United States. He choose not to register the book with the U.S. Copyright Office at that time (a $30 fee), but did indicate his copyright on the book itself. "I thought this was something the rest of the family should have," he said. "If I thought someone was misusing it, I would immediately register it."

When asked about the impact of the Internet on news, Bagdikian noted that every paper of any size has someone watching the Internet, monitoring what's published, and that major papers increasingly have a quick version of a story published on the Internet, followed by a more in-depth print version.

The proliferation of electronic content also allows some non-establishment views to be heard. In addition to the big media outlets online, such as The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times, individuals can and are putting out their own news and views.

"The Internet introduced the Matt Drudge factor," Bagdikian said. "Rumors are always more juicy. I also see various kinds of Web sites—accounts from someone in Palestine, Pakistan, etc.—individual accounts that are quite touching and have an impact. Print and TV tend to be influenced more by official views."

Bagdikian traces the influence of the party line back to the Reagan years and believes there was more diversity in reporting then than now. Several factors continue to play into this, including September 11 and the elimination of the fairness doctrine from the FCC's broadcast licensing process in 1984.

"September 11 is being used as an excuse to make limitations on access," Bagdikian said. "I wish for an organization with the money and passion and legal skills to find the right issue that has a good change of winning in litigation and push it."

Outside factors are not the only dangers to journalistic objectivity, however. The more visible relationship between editorial content and advertisers and sponsors is blurring the line between objective and advertiser-influenced articles.

"There's supposed to be a wall between 'church' and 'state' [editors and advertisers], " Bagdikian said. "The real break came at the LA Times when Mark Willis, publisher and CEO, declared that no part of the paper would be edited just by an editor, but co-edited by an ad person. That opened the floodgates."



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