Last week, you could hear lots of honking and yelling on the road to Contentville, the new Web site that sells books, magazine subscriptions, and collected news articles, inviting its readers to “rejoice.” But this was a case of road rage—with an angry phalanx of writers, from ph.D. Scholars to Harper‘s contributors, accusing contentville of selling their work without asking permission. The complaints first surfaced on Jim Romenesko’s Web site, with many demanding that their content be taken down immediately.
On July 19, Contentville founder Steve Brill took the time-honored step of e-mailing Romenesko, braying his commitment to “decent ethics” and his intention to work out a deal with the National Writers Union whereby freelance authors could be paid royalties. Meanwhile, Contentville reassured writers of its legal standing, and by the end of the day, MSNBC.com posted a story declaring Brill’s hawking of Ph.D. dissertations to be “all perfectly legal.”
MSNBC’s snap judgment was a little suspect, given that Microsoft and NBC are partners in Contentville. (No mention of this in the story.) But forget the conflicts of interest, and forget the little people who felt violated by the media watchdog. Brill’s experiment is only a few weeks old, and at least one publishing company has accused him of stealing its intellectual property.
“How the hell did they get our archives?” fumed David Schneiderman, CEO of Village Voice Media, upon learning that Contentville is selling hundreds of Voice articles, including the work of Michael Musto and Nat Hentoff along with that of scores of freelancers who retain the rights to their work. Individual articles are going for $2.95 a pop, prompting Schneiderman to ask, “Why should we let Contentville sell this stuff to readers who can get it on our Web site for free?”
On July 21, upon learning that an obscure company called EBSCO holds the right to market Voice archives to libraries, the Voice lawyer fired off a letter to Brill, claiming that EBSCO’s 1994 contract with the Voice was intended for educational and research purposes, and that the contract was rendered void by the sale of the Voice earlier this year. She requested that Brill remove “any Village Voice material” at once.
EBSCO Publishing, based in Ipswich, Massachusetts, is a Contentville partner, along with NBC, CBS, Microsoft, and so on. In addition to selling magazine subscriptions, EBSCO has traditionally been a middleman, licensing content from hundreds of publishers to build electronic databases and offering those archives to libraries by subscription. By getting EBSCO out of the library, Brill has created a kind of poor man’s Nexis, giving anyone with Internet access and a credit card the means to do quickie research. (Contentville has no connection to Lexis-Nexis, which charges high rates for a superior service.)
Despite the questions, Brill is confident that everything’s on the up-and-up. “EBSCO guarantees the validity of third-party contracts,” he said in an interview last week. “They’re selling all this stuff now and they’ve been selling it for 10 years to libraries. Our due diligence was, they told us we have the right to sell this to you.”
However, due to a lack of transparency on the site, the provenance of the Contentville archives remained a mystery last week. From The New Republic to U.S. News & World Report to Adoptive Families magazine, few seemed to know how Contentville had acquired their content.
“I was not aware that EBSCO was licensing our content to Contentville,” said John Lerner, vice president and general manager of VNU eMedia, whose stable includes MediaWeek, AdWeek, BrandWeek, and Editor & Publisher. Lerner says that at this point, he doesn’t know whether EBSCO is acting within its rights.
A source at the Christian Science Monitor said that on first glance, Contentville’s use of the paper’s archives appeared to be valid under an EBSCO contract and under the paper’s standard freelance contract, which assigns nonexclusive electronic rights to the Monitor. According to the source, the Monitor goes out of its way to respect freelancers’ rights because it is owned by the First Church of Christ, Scientist, whose purpose is “to injure no man, but to bless all mankind.”
If only the same could be said of Steve Brill. Brill says his site has made “direct contact” with major media companies to secure explicit permission to market their archives. Condé Nast turned him down, but Mort Zuckerman, who owns U.S. News & World Report, said yes. Contentville is currently negotiating a deal with Time Inc. that would allow the new site to sell articles from Time and Fortune. Harper‘s now says a legitimate EBSCO contract exists.
Brill says his people approached The New York Times directly, and a spokesperson for New York Times Digital confirms that the paper has a “distribution arrangement” that lets Contentville sell articles from the last 365 days of its archives. (The archives of other major papers, such as The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, are not being sold on the site.)
Tim Collins, general manager of EBSCO Publishing, declined to comment on whether EBSCO is exposed to contract disputes. When asked how publishers were informed that EBSCO planned to market their archives via Contentville, he said EBSCO notified more than 100 companies in its quarterly newsletter, which was sent out with the two most recent royalty checks in 2000. Asked if he considers that sufficient notice, he said, “EBSCO could have done better.”
Collins says EBSCO pays royalties to the publishers, who are responsible for paying their writers. If a writer indicates that he or she owns the copyright to an article, EBSCO removes the article from its database. He says if the Voice requests the removal of its archives, it will take about “two weeks.”
Brill says that will happen, unless he can persuade the Voice to sign on. Asked how he justifies selling readers something they can get elsewhere for free, he says people will pay for the “convenience” of having so much material in one place. However, if you read the fine print, Contentville promises readers that “we’ll tell you” if material for sale there is “available elsewhere for free.” But look up a Voice article, and you’ll find no such notice.
Jonathan Tasini, president of the National Writers Union, is scheduled to meet with Brill July 25. Based on his talk with Brill last week, Tasini believes the media watchdog is “genuinely interested” in achieving a fair resolution. “He’s a leader on the issue of ethics in journalism, and the improper use of writers’ work on the Internet is an ethical question,” says Tasini. “If we come to an agreement, he can be a megaphone to the rest of the industry.”
But David Wallis, a New York-based writer who is planning to launch an elite freelancers agency, sees Brill’s cozying up to the National Writers Union as a “dodge,” and a reaction to the “terrible publicity and backlash” of last week. “As a media watchdog,” Wallis says, “Steve Brill has rabies.”