Why movie studios happily violate journalists’ copyright

By Felix Salmon
January 7, 2014
white-goods queen of Eighth Avenue asks my opinion on @aoscott agate.

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The white-goods queen of Eighth Avenue asks my opinion on @aoscott adgate. I take requests, over here, so: is it kosher for a movie producer to selectively quote from the Twitter feed of the NYT’s movie reviewer, in a print ad, even when the reviewer in question explicitly said he would not give permission?

The simple answer is no. The tweet from Tony Scott was used in the NYT print ad precisely because he’s a public figure of authority to NYT readers. As a public figure, he’s entitled to determine when and whether he’s used to promote some commercial interest. Besides, the use of the tweet is arguably a violation both of copyright and of Twitter’s terms of service (which say that tweets can’t be used in advertising “without explicit permission of the original content creator”).

The more complicated answer, however, is that this is a form of blurb, and blurbs from publications have been used — without either the publication or the author’s explicit consent — for decades. Reviewers write reviews, journalists write articles, and then producers happily pick a word or two and slap it in huge type across their ads or marquees. The more high-minded journalists have always disliked this practice, but have been largely powerless to prevent it. And when a play or a movie wants to spend tens of thousands of dollars on an ad buy, where the ad in question features such blurbs, the producers (or media buyers) in question are always welcomed with open arms.

In any organization, the bits of the business which bring in the money tend to be the bits of the business with the most power and influence. At high-minded publications like the NYT, the ad side is grown-up enough to stop itself from trying to directly interfere with what the edit side produces. But still, products like the NYT’s thick annual “Summer Movies” section are entirely driven by the massive quantity of ads that they generate. There’s an unspoken rule that the coverage in such supplements is going to generally be upbeat and fluffy — that it’s going to make readers want to see the movies being written about.

And even if the ad side has no control at all over the edit side, it does at least enforce reciprocity: that the edit side won’t seek to control what the ad side allows to be printed. If there’s a fight between ad and edit over whether or not NYT reviews can be selectively quoted in movie ads, then ultimately the ad side is going to make the final determination. And whatever the clients (the movie studios) want, is very likely to end up being exactly what the clients get.

For me, then, the fact that the ad used a tweet rather than a formal review is not such a big deal. In some way it’s more interesting that the use of a tweet spurred vastly more discussion and outrage than any highly-selective blurb, culled from a more traditional source, has done in years. You’d think that tweets were more easy-come, easy-go — that people wouldn’t care as much about tweets as intellectual property. But it seems that they do! At least, they do when those tweets start appearing in print.

In a world where the brands of individual journalists have never been more valuable, and where the money flowing from print ad revenues has never been lower, this storm in a teacup might be a sign that the balance of power is changing. It may be a sign that the big ad buyers don’t have quite as much ability to dictate the rules as they used to. Or, it might just be a slow news week. Frankly, I suspect that the movie studios are going to continue to produce whatever ads they want to produce, and that the NYT is going to continue to publish just about anything that the studios would like them to publish. Just so long as the ads in question don’t use dirty words or show too much skin.

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