Sunday, December 17, 2006

First Amendment for Skunks

[posted by Callimachus]

Rarely do I approve of blatant editorializing in news reporting. Even more rarely do I agree with such when it comes from the mouth of the LA Times. But I gotta agree with this lede: "It's hard to know whom to sympathize with in this fight."

On one side: the paparazzi who stalk celebrities in their moments of greatest vulnerability β€” at doctors' offices, with their newborns, when they are falling-down drunk.

On the other: a blogger who helps himself to those photos, scrawls puerile comments on them, and posts them on his immensely popular and profitable website.

The owners of one L.A. photo agency are so frustrated with what they consider to be blatant theft by self-styled "gossip gangsta" Perez Hilton that they've decided to make a federal case of it.

On Nov. 30, X17 Inc., known for the aggressive pursuit of celebrity prey, filed a $7.6-million federal copyright infringement lawsuit against Hilton, alleging that he has used 51 photos without permission, payment or credit.

There are important legal issues here, and frankly the role of blogs in the media pantheon needs to be established. I wish it didn't have to happen in courts, but typically such things don't happen anywhere else.

On one level, this case would be a good way to broach the subject. But the principals don't seem to be playing it as a First Amendment issue. More like a pissing contest.

"We've had trouble with a lot of bloggers," [Brandy Navarre, who co-owns X17] said. "But he's the biggest, and the most arrogant and pigheaded about it, frankly."

When the lawyers get down to laying out their respective cases, it starts to look more real. Hilton's attorney says: "The effect would be to eliminate the ability to comment on and transform photographs under the fair-use exception to the Copyright Act." X17's attorney says: Hilton "is basically free-riding on the labor and efforts of X17 and its photographers who stay up all night and roam the city, and he simply right-clicks and posts their photos."

This all centers on the squalid world of tabloid-style celebrity gossip and the public's malevolent fixation with the tendency of famous people to self-destruct in ways society loathes. But it will affect every blogger.

It's hard to split the hairs of my mutual dislike in this case. But this graph tilts my sense of who's playing fair toward the paparazzi:

... X17 has agreements with many gossip blogs β€” Pink IsTheNewBlog, PopSugar and SocialiteLife, among others β€” allowing them to post photos with proper credit and a link back to the X17 website ....

Right. Credit ought to be given, and that's a fair way to do it. I also was surprised to learn that "Hilton" "expected to make in the six figures this year ...."

Technology expert Matt Lum gets it right: "The way that Americans get their news and entertainment these days is a whole lot different from waiting for things to get printed, and that's what's at the crux of this whole ordeal."

This is a world where George Carlin devotes a Web site to documenting the mass e-mailed essays and one-liners falsely attributed to him online.

This is the kind of lawsuit you will have in a nation where "reading a newspaper and surfing the Internet will each consume the same amount of the average American adult's time next year ...." Don't be fooled by the equivalence. They're ships passing in the night -- or, more properly, the Titanic and the iceberg.

Ten years ago, according to a Pew report in the summer, one in 50 Americans regularly got their news from the Internet. Today the figure is one in three.