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Crowdsourcing the news: Do we need a public license for citizen journalism?

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By now, it should be obvious to just about anyone that “citizen journalism” or “user-generated content” is a crucial part of what the news has become, whether it’s a photo of a plane landing on the Hudson or a video of a bomb exploding in Boston. Unfortunately, the ways that media entities handle such content is all over the map — some give credit, while others take whatever they want without so much as a link. Do we need a formal structure to deal with this new reality?

Mark Little, founder and CEO of social-media platform Storyful, thinks that we do. At the recent International Journalism Festival in Italy — where the former foreign correspondent and news anchor discussed the idea with me over breakfast — Little said that he had floated the idea of a “Perugia Declaration” (named after the city where the conference was held) as a way of trying to formalize how media outlets of all kinds should deal with user-generated content.

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Giving credit where credit is due

Little expanded on this idea in a recent post at the Storyful blog, where he described how the current process of using videos from “citizen journalists” is chaotic at best: while some outlets do their best to link to the original source — or at the very least the original uploader — other sites don’t give any at all, or provide a tiny credit line that says “Credit: YouTube,” which Little says is like putting “Credit: Telephone” on a newspaper report.

“In an age when every member of your audience is also a potential reporter, the old rules no longer apply – but the new rules either don’t yet exist or are not enforced. Most major news organizations have some basic guidelines governing the use of user content and some, like the BBC, have dedicated UGC units. Consistently applied standards are, however, the exception. Even as the news industry grows increasingly dependent on user-generated content it remains chronically confused by it.”

Social media

Helping to track down and confirm the original sources of “user-generated content” was one of the goals behind creating Storyful, and many media outlets now use the service as a way of getting access to verified content during a breaking news event. The service also recently started helping to represent creators of “viral videos” and other user-generated content in their dealings with publishers — in effect, becoming an agent for them, and taking a cut of the proceeds in return for its efforts.

But Little sees news-related content as a different animal entirely — almost as a public good, he said — and he wants media organizations to agree on a kind of Creative Commons-style format for giving credit to the original uploaders or citizen journalists who capture that kind of content.

“Eyewitness video of a tragic but important event – natural disaster, conflict, plane crash or terror attack – clearly has immediate value. But does it have a price? Should it be sold as a commodity? I would argue that the value of this exceptional content takes the form of a public utility. It may generate secondary commercial value, but it should not be privatized.”

A “public service video licence”


In effect, the Storyful founder is suggesting that media outlets collaborate on the creation of a Public Service Video License, which would guarantee that video content would be credited to the original rights-holder (provided the rights-holder wanted to be publicly identified), and that any media entities using it would be required to give credit in a specific manner — and would only be granted a limited sub-licence to re-use the content.

Little adds that such a system would also have to prevent “scraping” or unauthorized duplication of content somehow, either through watermarking or something like YouTube’s Content ID system.

Would an approach like the one Little is suggesting work? While I sympathize with his viewpoint, I’m not sure it would. Preventing scraping or duplication, for example, would be almost impossible or prohibitively expensive — as the music and movie industries have discovered. And if all the system does is provide credit to the original source, Creative Commons and/or the “fair use” principle of U.S. copyright law would seem to already cover most of that territory.

That said, however, I think the goal is a positive one: namely, to get media companies to make providing this kind of credit part of what they do in a semi-formal way. For too long now, social-media platforms have been seen by many as a place where you can take content for your own purposes without having to provide credit to anyone. If a Perugia Declaration is what it takes to jump-start such a process, then maybe it’s an idea worth exploring.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users Petteri Sulonen and Rosaura Ochoa

14 Responses to “Crowdsourcing the news: Do we need a public license for citizen journalism?”

  1. Kevin:

    nice idea! but you’re barking up the wrong tree by asking for help to formalize some standards…..

    This discussion has been going on for, oh, well over 7 or 8 years now, and it benefits a whole bunch of people to not have standards, to not even link, and to never pay for UGC. In fact, there are some UGC Terms of Service that state openley that they will hold on to the rights to UGC “in perpetuity and across the universe.”

    You might want to check out these posts on my old blog The Constant Observer, where I blogged from 2005 to 2010 on a number of issues related to the news industry and UGC (among other topics.)

    In that last blog post, from 2010, you may want to note that, at that time, there were publishers who believed it was ok to re-publish other people’s content on their site, if they deemed it was UGC. It’s all a crock and everyone, from low to high, should be paid something for the content they create if someone else is using it. Period. No Freebies. Ever.

  2. Kevin Davis

    Whoa! I could write pages on this topic but will try to keep it short!

    There is absolutely a need to formalize a process around crowdsourced newsgathering and User Generated Content and it goes way beyond attributing credit.

    I think that a hat tip to the owner of the content should be a baseline courtesy but we shouldn’t lose sight of compensation. I challenge mainstream media properties who attract traffic with UGC to deny that they aren’t earning revenue as a result of that photo or video. Even if there aren’t UGC budgets (yet) then those benefitting from the use of these photos and videos should consider a rev-share model which seems fair.

    YouTube comes close but refuses to pay when they are able find a loophole. This happened recently with one of our users at Rawporter who earned 1.2M views with her Watertown Shootout video and has been told she won’t get paid. Meanwhile, we offered a way to legitimately license the video on our platform and there were eager buyers waiting.

    I’m not suggesting that every news item should be monetized but we should, at the very least, attempt to do for photo and video sharing what iTunes did for music file sharing. We built our platform so people could protect their photos and videos and buyers (Media, Brands, etc.) could legitimately license this content affordably. If done correctly, it’s a much more efficient system and both sides win. The last thing we should do is stifle this wonderful opportunity where the masses at large are finally able to participate in this insatiable news environment.

    Who wants to help me formalize some standards? @mathwi @ericcarvin @acarvin @steverubel @DavidClinchNews @marklittlenews @sree @jkrums @stefmara @jeffjarvis @timcast @UGCAlliance @newmediarights

    Let’s think beyond verifying authenticity, ownership and attribution. Let’s start thinking through the business model and how to make it work for everyone. It’s been the social media wild west long enough and I’m thankful that some of the great minds in journalism are beginning to think through this!

  3. This is just another attempt at media companies to get free content in order to boost their bottom lines….

    at the beginning of blogging/vlogging/etc., the idea was to get “discovered,” so that one might be able to get a paying job doing video or writing for a news organization or other business. It was not an end in and of itself. However, that’s what has happened. That a potential “license” idea has been created, the news industry is simply finding a way to validate but keep not paying for what they consider to be “user generated content” with little value….

    the “little vaule” is to the person who owns it. Giving credit usually doesn’t create revenue for the person who produced the video, only for the organization who took it–like it always has. When there’s a way to equitably distribute the revenue that big media companies make from “user-generated content” gladly given to them, then perhaps they’ll be doing the right thing.

  4. I would let you all know that this is still a democratic society & nothing here on blogs or anywhere else is more like competition. With all the stuff going on & people everywhere looking for a way to get noticed & recognized or just simply want to show their friends something is all the worthwhile opportunity you can have. I simply don’t care much for the media anyway as they all don’t put out facts & usually look for negative events anyway. I find nothing in the news that is positive to uplift our lives. So while all the media & licensed
    journalists are out there trying to get a story, maybe they should look for better stories than death & destruction.

  5. When is content ‘exceptional content’?

    Does Storyful want to be the broker of choice?

    Terrible idea. licence means control. Control means that some things will be prohibited – if not by this government, then by another government further down the line.

    Photography in public places is under threat as it is.

    It doesn’t need or want to get tangled up in licences to make the job easier for those whose bent is to say no, or to want to control everything.

    • Thanks for the comment, David — I understand your concern, but I don’t think Storyful is interested in a public licence because it wants to control anything, or give anyone else a means to control anything. Just the opposite, in fact — I think Mark wants there to be an established way that “citizen journalism” can be re-used and still provide credit to the original creator, so that media entities don’t capture all the value themselves without any effort. That seems like a worthwhile idea to me.

      • I agree about the attribution concerns, which are particularly pertinent in the UK with the concerns about ‘orphan works’ under the new Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act.

        However, I stand by my concerns about licensing.

  6. Juan Mario Inca

    ​Really interesting Mathew, thanks ​!

    ​Given your interest, I think that you (and the other readers here) would be really interested in some recent research that I have come across that theorizes about crowds and such similar phenomena.​ ​

    It’s called “The Theory of Crowd Capital” and you can download it here if you’re interested:

    In my view it provides a powerful, yet simple model, getting to the heart of the matter. Enjoy!

    • Kevin Davis

      Hey Guys… i tried reading this but couldn’t exptrapolate the powerful, yet simple model, that gets at the heart of the matter. I did take full advantage of the holiday weekend so it could just be me but what page specifically?

  7. Beth Kindig

    I’m not a big fan of introducing licensing for the likes of 4 billion hours of YouTube consumed every month to justify your startup and product, such as Storyful.

    “Helping to track down and confirm the original sources of “user-generated content” was one of the goals behind creating Storyful, and many media outlets now use the service as a way of getting access to verified content during a breaking news event.”