What's the saving throw against a chaotic-evil digithief?

Speaking on the first day of the World Newspaper Congress in Hyderabad, India, Rupert Murdoch’s US leader accused the press of being the “principal architect of its greatest difficulty today”. …”We are allowing our journalism—billions of dollars worth of it every year—to leak onto the internet. We are surrendering our hard-earned rights to the search engines and aggregators, and the out and out thieves of the digital age.” [link]

There is something remarkable about this quote from Les Hinton that perhaps nobody has noticed. If the “and” in the last sentence is accurate, Hinton is not suggesting that search engines and news aggregators are thieves: he is specifically stating that they are NOT thieves, or not quite. This is an opinion that is the direct, 180-degree opposite from the one his boss has often expressed. Considering which boss we’re talking about, you never saw a bigger “and” in your life.

Hinton is right to speak carefully, of course. Theft is the taking of property without consent, but the big windmill Murdoch is tilting at, Google, still requires his implied permission as proprietor to engage in all that linking he so objects to. (To get the full effect, imagine that word “linking” spoken in a sneering, sulfurous Montgomery Burns voice. Linnnkinnng.) Blocking Google’s robots from crawling a website and scraping data for its main search engine takes about 30 seconds’ work. The process of having a site removed from Google News can be initiated in another 60, with a simple e-mail.

So what’s the holdup on Murdoch’s side? Obviously his wrath at “thieves” is properly understood as a negotiating stance, not an inflexible philosophical position. Newspapers have problems, but as far I can see or have seen, they can’t complain of very widespread intellectual-property takings of the sort that are arguably helping to kill the “music business” (i.e., an infestation of parasites whose interpolation between musicians and their audiences no longer offers any benefit). If only the poor record companies could have fought off Napster and its successors by changing one line in a robots.txt file!

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