News Corp’s chairman also confirms talks with Google

James Murdoch has attacked plans by the British Library to digitise the national newspaper collection, warning that public bodies should not decide how copyrighted material is exploited for commercial gain.

The chairman and chief executive of News Corporation, Europe and Asia, also confirmed comments made by Google’s chief executive Eric Schmidt at the search engine’s Zeitgeist conference earlier in the week that the two companies are talking about ways in which the search engine giant might recompense News International for aggregating its news content.

Both issues are increasingly important given News International’s plans to start charging for online access to the Times and Sunday Times next month.

On Wednesday the British Library announced it was linking up with Dundee-based IT firm Brightsolid – part of publisher DC Thomson which also owns Friends Reunited – to digitise more than 40m pages from the national newspaper collection – which spans three centuries and 52,000 local, national and international titles. The archive was built up using the library’s power to demand copies of all newspapers printed in the UK. The archive, however, will only be available online as a paid-for service.

In a speech to mark the launch of University College London’s centre for digital humanities, Murdoch warned that public bodies were increasingly treading on the toes of commercial organisations as public bodies looked to increase their audience so they captured more users and gained more funding.

“Take the current controversy over the library’s intention to provide unrestricted access to digital material,” Murdoch said. “Material that publishers originally produced – and continue to make available – for commercial reasons. Like the search business, but motivated by different concerns, the public sector interest is to distribute content for near-zero cost – harming the market in so doing, and then justifying increased subsidies to make up for the damage it has inflicted.”

In front of an audience that included his father Rupert, the chief executive of News International Rebekah Brooks and Sun editor Dominic Mohan, Murdoch added: “The case of the British Library goes even further. Just yesterday, the library announced the digitisation of their newspaper archive – originally given to them by publishers as a matter of legal obligation.

“This is not simply being done for posterity, nor to make free access for library users easier, but also for commercial gain via a paid for website. The move is strongly opposed by major publishers. If it goes ahead, free content would not only be a justification for more funding, but actually become a source of funds for a public body.”

Speaking after the speech Murdoch said he was not planning any immediate action against the British Library but stressed “from the publishing industry’s point of view we are very, very concerned about some of the approaches that they seem to be taking. But at the same time there is a dialogue with the library about it.”

“The copyright holder needs to be part and parcel of determining how further exploitation digitally is conducted and that really has to be the centre of this,” he said. The worry for News International, of course, is that the British Library’s move could undermine its paid-for content model. “It’s not to say that there is a big fight here: what there is, is a question right now is: they are looking at those assets and asking ‘how do I do these things’ and they would like to reach as many people as possible, and rights holders are saying ‘hang on a minute’.”

In the past, meanwhile, Murdoch’s father has been scathing in his attacks on Google, accusing the company of piggybacking on News Corp’s investment in journalism for its own commercial gains. But more recently, the two sides have been talking about ways in which Google could perhaps share revenues generated through its use of News International content in its searches.

Murdoch said he was “surprised” that Schmidt had decided to talk about their talks, but confirmed after his speech “there have been discussions”.

He said he had seen Schmidt’s comments earlier in the week and “what was encouraging from our perspective was that it was really a recognition that what they are doing with respect to not making a fair contribution – actually not making a contribution at all – is not enough … I cannot speak to intent or desire but I would say that what I read into those comments was – and making them in public – a real recognition that the approach they have taken so far does not work.”

Murdoch’s speech at UCL used the 300th anniversary of The Statute of Anne, which created copyright law, to discuss the impact that online piracy has on the creative industries and the increasingly ideological fight over whether content — especially news content — should be ‘free’ on the web.

“I believe that if there is an imbalance between the providers of creativity and those who exploit it, then we should care about it, and do something about it,” he said. “Do not be misled by claims of high principle in this debate. When someone tells you content wants to be free, what you should hear is ‘I want your content for free’ – and that is not the same thing at all. We must rediscover something that should be very obvious: the importance of placing a proper value on creative endeavour.”

Speaking to reporters after his speech he said he did not want a new legal framework put in place to deal with issues such as online piracy, he wanted proper enforcement of existing legislation.

“There are legal tools, notions of creative ownership, that will be very useful and are very useful in a digital environment,” he said. “The fact is that this period of technological change that we have now should not mean that we simply say we have to have a whole new bunch of rules… all that is required is the will of the creative industries to stand up and say ‘this is the way we want this to happen’ and governments to say we are going to restrain public bodies in this digital terrain and we are going to enforce and reaffirm the copyright principles that have served us so well.” © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010 | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds