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The War On News, Live

Note: a version of this op-ed (without the links for reference) first appeared today in the Times of India. Read it here.

It’s Sunday, the 15th of February, 2015, and you’re up far too early for it to be just another day. At the Adelaide Oval India are playing Pakistan in the fourth match of the ICC Cricket World Cup, and you curse your luck because you don’t have a TV in your hotel room. Almost out of habit you open Cricinfo on mobile, and you find that the scores are delayed by 15 minutes. You SMS CRI to Indiatimes’ 58888, and get the same delayed score.

This situation exists even today, where websites (like Yahoo, Cricinfo and Cricbuzz), telecom operators and mobile application developers are being prevented from providing cricket scores and ball-by-ball commentary, unless they pay licence fees to the company that has won these rights from the BCCI. Four court cases (one, two, three, four) that will decide the future of real-time media are currently in progress at various levels of the Indian judiciary, and a case filed by Star India has reached the Supreme Court of India, without much of an alarm from the fraternity it affects most: the media.

I remember initially hearing of ”Hot News” at a press conference for the 2010 Asia Cup, where Vrock Mobile announced that it had won exclusive mobile rights for the tournament. Jatin Ahluwalia, the company’s founder and CEO, appealed to journalists present to help him prevent ”piracy” of cricket scores. When i asked him then to explain how sharing of scores is piracy, and how scores can even be copyrighted, he said it’s ”Hot News”.

The ‘‘Hot News” doctrine says an event organiser has complete ownership of any news related to that event while it is hot and fresh. Because of that, only an entity that has been sold the rights can report it live. This is different from broadcast and images, because a video clip or photograph belong to the entity creating it. Copyright exists in what you create, not in the event that it is based on. Because copyright cannot exist in facts, anyone can report them. Hot News creates a new set of rights called ”quasi property rights”, allowing ownership of information related to an event, available exclusively to the highest bidder.

The Delhi high court, while rejecting Star’s claims last year, had even said that the BCCI auctioning ”mobile” rights cannot legitimise the right to disseminate information, without first establishing that the rights exist in the first place. How can you pirate what no one owns?

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This is immensely important from a media perspective, because it impacts the freedom that a news organisation has to report live. Both TV and internet have made media breathless: you like to consume media live, so we’re pushed to report live. Advertising and commercial decisions are impacted by where you’re reading or viewing the news first. Our existence, especially with the proliferation of the internet on mobile, will increasingly depend on being first, and this is why the move to establish control over information becomes all the more significant.

While the organiser of an event (say, the BCCI, a company, or even a political party) has rights to allow access to an event, it doesn’t have control over facts from it. Today a journalist can be prevented from attending a rally, but can’t be prevented from reporting live, perched on top a building overlooking the rally. ”Hot News” gives control to an organiser to force a media publication, dependent on him for access to information, to play nice and not be critical.

Multiple court cases have been filed to establish control. Multi-Screen Media got an injunction in December that led to scores on Cricinfo, Yahoo and Cricbuzz, during the India-New Zealand cricket series, being delayed by 15 minutes. Star sent notices to application developers asking them not to provide scores and ball-by-ball commentary for the Asia Cup, and has filed another case against Cricinfo and Cricbuzz in the Delhi high court.

It’s as if with every cricket tournament, a fresh case will be filed. The financial burden on some of these websites, which have been asked to pay Rs 10 lakh per match for a licence to report live, else delay reports and lose advertisers, could lead to some of them being shut down. Star’s first case was related only to mobile, but Multi-Screen Media brought in reporting on the internet as well. Precedence is being created.

It’s important to remember that while ”Hot News” is being created for sports, it could apply to any privately created event. Take the stock markets, where the price of shares matter only while they are immediate, and the difference of a few seconds could mean that people win or lose crores of rupees. A stock exchange could effectively auction rights to this information, and the rest could lose out. The trickle-down effect of this is significant: the company that pays for this information will ask you to pay for it as well, even though these facts are not under copyright.

If the Supreme Court of India validates and creates these quasi property rights, information that was once free will become paid, and the independence of media will be under threat.


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