SCMP Tuesday, April 24, 2001

Newspaper Society hunts for copyright consensus

Legislators and government officials are on tenterhooks trying to hammer out a regime to regulate photocopying of newspapers to save them from further embarrassment stemming from their hasty revision of the copyright laws. This, however, might prove tricky.
The administration will table a contingency bill tomorrow to freeze a set of flawed legislative amendments aimed at providing greater protection for intellectual-property rights. The stop-gap measure is meant to suspend the ban on unauthorised photocopying of newspaper articles until an acceptable, long-term arrangement is reached.
The authorities are pinning their hopes on the Newspaper Society of Hong Kong to come with a consensus. The body is looking at a shared mechanism for collecting future copyright dues. Nonetheless, some key publishers are not represented in the organisation. Hence, even if the trade association could produce a common scheme, it could only cover fewer than half of the estimated 1.7 million copies of newspapers in circulation on a daily basis.
In theory, circulation figures could have served as an objective starting point for any royalty-sharing formula. But several major dailies have refused to submit their tabulations for independent appraisal.
Circulation aside, readership figures projected by third parties might offer an alternative frame of reference for profit sharing. Yet one could contend that even this might be unfair. A pro-Beijing daily, for example, might claim a readership share less than two per cent of that of the market leader. It does not necessarily follow that the former will be less likely to be photocopied.
Publications with a strong financial coverage might argue they are more frequently photocopied for commercial purposes. The so-called intellectual papers, for their part, might often be reproduced in school settings. Nonetheless, such educational uses of copyright materials are supposed to be exempted and would not generate any royalty payments.
The 15 local dailies can, of course, opt to submit themselves to a uniform charging regime, irrespective of their market positions. Given the rivalry within the industry, however, this is unlikely.
Meanwhile, the Apple Daily is gracious enough to have declared it will not take legal action against anyone photocopying its product. But the paper adds that it cannot offer the same exemption to segments on some of its pages, including the wire-service articles, whose copyrights are held by others.
An average Chinese-language newspaper carries scores of short columns of about 400 to 500 characters contributed by non-staff writers. In most cases, the publishers have not reached any written agreement with them over the copyright.
The authors, of course, expect the publishers to have the right to print their works in the respective newspapers. However, the same cannot be assumed for the articles to be carried or reproduced beyond the papers in question.
Ming Pao, for instance, has refrained from posting its columnists' pieces on its Web site. One of the practical reasons is that the paper has yet to secure its contributors' consent to use the articles for other purposes.
Contributors eager to take a slice from the pie might as well start negotiating with the papers to lay claim to the photocopy rights. The administration reportedly hopes to consult the relevant parties and conclude the issue within a year. But that might prove to be wishful thinking.
Andy Ho ( ) is a political commentator.