Share and Share Alike: Traversing the World of Newspapers, Online Content, and Creative Commons Licensing


It’s not at all rare to find publications that will let you read their content online for free. The internet was based on a philosophy of the free exchange of ideas, something that lends itself well to an advertising-supported business model. Free content is the backbone of online publishers like Yahoo, CNET Networks and However, even as the traditional publishing industry is loosing ad dollars online, since they rely on subscription fees, they’re reluctant to freely release articles online.

The New York Times posts articles online, but locks them up behind a paid subscription wall after one week. The Wall Street Journal only releases brief summaries online, the rest of the article is online unlocked after users buy a subscription to the print Journal. The Tribune Company also locks away content as does McClatchy, two of the US’s largest newspaper publishing groups. The idea is that if content is freely available online, it will take away from the sale of printed copies of the same content. They are also wary of unauthorized copying and redistribution.

If an organization or individual wanted to republish an article from a major publisher, they’d have to find and contact the one individual or department at that company that handles that sort of thing, learn if they allow republication, explain how they want to use the content, find out how much of a fee they would have to pay, and learn exactly what restrictions they have to abide by. By the time the process is complete, the article they wanted to redistribute may be old news.

In contrast, one small newspaper publisher has loosened its grip on the content that it relies on for survival. GateHouse Media, a publisher of more than 445 local community newspapers around the US, has published all the staff-written content on its network of community-based newspaper websites under a Creative Commons non-commercial no derivatives license, which basically means that anyone is able to make a copy of and republish an article as long as they say where it came from, don’t alter it in any way, and don’t make any money from it.

Creative Commons is a non-profit organization created by Lawrence Lessig, a professor of law at Stanford University, in 2001. The Creative Commons licensing system it supports evolved out of the GNU Free Documentation License, originally designed to license documentation for free and open source software. The license allows content creators to reserve certain rights, like the right to earn money on a creative work, while leaving it open for a community to redistribute or build on. In GateHouse’s case, they’ve reserved the right to commercialize, the right to preserve the content’s integrity, and the right of attribution.

It’s all “part of being a good partner on the web,” says Howard Owens, GateHouse Media’s Director of Digital Publishing. After GateHouse publications kept on receiving requests from local non-profit and community groups to republish GateHouse articles in their own newsletters, he pushed to license everything under Creative Commons, effectively stripping out the cumbersome request procedure and streamlining the whole process.

There was simply no downside to licensing content under Creative Commons, adds Owens, who believes it would work just as well for a large newspaper publisher as for a small one. Under Creative Commons, creative works are just as protected under the law as they are under standard copyright. In 2006 the license was put to the test when podcaster Adam Curry sued a Dutch tabloid for reprinting photos he had posted on Flickr under the Canadian version of the Creative Commons non-commercial license.

To date GateHouse has only experienced two violations. One was on a community website that was serving Google AdSense ads next to an article. That was dealt with by an informal letter explaining what was and was not allowed under the license. The other was on a spam website that knowingly copied content from other sites and served ads against it, which would have happened no matter what license the articles in question were published under. That was dealt with by a legal cease and desist letter.

While the Creative Commons license provides an effective means to allow the redistribution of editorial content, the license’s real benefit will be in the way it allows users to share their own content. GateHouse is planning to eventually let users upload and share their own photos and videos, adds Owens, something that will be made a little bit easier by the inclusion of Creative Commons.

The “web is a network economy,” says Owens, “Everybody online should use Creative Commons.” Sharing content through hyperlinks and other means is built into the architecture of the web. As ad dollars continue to migrate online, and content becomes more and more open, it will be difficult to facilitate the sharing content unless newspaper publishers loosen their belts and use a license like Creative Commons that clearly defines what is and isn’t allowed.



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