It should be obvious to anyone paying attention that newspapers are in trouble. From major players to minor, cutbacks and closings are presently occurring industry-wide as publishers struggle to find viable business models suited to a 21st century technological paradigm.
The Jewish newspaper market is no exception, with local Jewish newspapers nationwide cutting back their staff and print schedules or shuttering their doors altogether.
One phenomenon that appears to be accelerating the decline of at least some Jewish news organizations is the rise of a group of Jewish news aggregation Web sites, predominantly serving the ultra-Orthodox community, which copy and republish in-full, without permission or payment, content from more prominent Jewish news sources, robbing them of both desperately needed licensing fees and revenue-generating Web site traffic.
JTA, for example, is a syndication service which requires that third parties sign a licensing agreement to redistribute our content. Nearly 100 Jewish newspapers around the world pay for this service dutifully, though that number is now declining due to the state of the industry. While we depend on these revenues to continue in our service as the primary source of national and international Jewish news coverage in North America and around the globe (as well as to provide our staff its parnassah), unauthorized Web sites such as Yeshiva World News, Vos Iz Neias, Matzav.com, COLlive, CrownHeights.info and CrownHeights.ch, which do not have licensing arrangements with JTA, reprint our content — and that of our colleagues and competitors — with impunity, despite the clear illegality of such practices. These Web sites then profit from the sale of advertising alongside our stolen content.
Ron Coleman, right, was honored at Agudath Israel’s annual dinner in New York City, May 15, 2009.
Growing increasingly frustrated with this phenomenon and particularly its prevalence among a group which routinely portrays itself as the sole champion of "Torah Judaism," I turned to Ron Coleman, an intellectual property lawyer and one of Agudath Israel of America’s 2009 Avodas Hakodesh honorees, to inquire about the legality and ethical considerations of such practices.
According to Coleman, whether or not one profits from such infringement, "it is not legal to copy-and-paste, in full, a copyright-protected article from any source without permission, even when attributing the copyright owner." It is also, he says, "ethically unacceptable, and essentially a form of theft, to knowingly infringe on someone’s copyright."
Though the amoraim and tannaim, the authors of the Talmud, were unclear on the issue of copyright infringement — making cases for and against it — several poskim [Jewish legal authorities] of latter ages, such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Rabbi Zalman Nechemiah Goldberg and Rabbi Chaim Sofer, consider copyright infringement a violation of the eighth commandment: "Thou shalt not steal."
Even if one were to differ with these authorities, nonetheless Coleman believes "there are serious considerations of dina d’malchusa dina [obeying the law of the land] and chillul Hashem [tarnishing God's name]" that are less open to interpretation, and "which may be far more relevant in the context of a Jewish-identified Web site engaged in copyright infringement." By this rationale, when a significant number of ultra-Orthodox Jews are engaged in the overt violation of Jewish law, it reflects poorly not only on the ultra-Orthodox community, but on God Himself.
Such legal and religious considerations don’t seem to be slowing these publishers down, however. And that is because they are enabled by their readers and advertisers, who provide them with the incentive to continue in such behavior. Until readers and advertisers alike stop providing these Web sites with traffic and revenue, organizations like ours will have to keep cutting back: Cutting budgets, cutting hours, cutting coverage and cutting staff, until there’s nothing left to cut.
And then there will be no content left to steal.