If you’ve never heard of an organisation called the National Licensing Authority, also known as the NLA Media Access, you’ll soon wish you never had.

This organisation is currently actively slapping fines on organisations which are breaching copyright laws around sharing of news articles online or otherwise in the UK. Technically anyone who wants to share any photographic image or screen shot of a newspaper or magazine article online, or in any other manner, should have a licence to do so. The licences are expensive, many around four figures and they recur.

Everyone is affected by this – any individual, any charity, any school, any business should have a licence if it wants to share such images online or ‘cuttings’ in the real world. However recently it seems the NLA is going for small businesses in particular.

Technically as a journalist/PR hybrid, I should have a licence to share cuttings with my clients – however my licence is unlikely to cover them for sharing those articles further. Every PR agency in the UK is affected by this, as will every cutting service as will every freelance journalist. This is a far reaching and, in my view, extremely damaging activity.

The NLA has a very large membership of newspaper and magazine groups including the local newspapers and magazines which are part of Reach plc – and this widely affects Swindon and Wiltshire. Using a copyright law from the 1980s the NLA are fining organisations for sharing screenshots or photographs of articles – including front pages, headlines and banners – on social media platforms and websites for breach of copyright.

The organisation and the publishers claim they are ‘safeguarding journalism’ as ‘it’s not free’ and we should all pay for that creativity. They claim that businesses are benefitting financially for ‘hosting’ that content on their social media platforms. Yet are they? More on that later.

In an age of open sharing on social media, where everything is share, share, share, this seems utterly ludicrous. It seems like some kind of ‘scam’. Indeed a news editor of a local newspaper at the heart of this told me he feared it was just that ‘a scam’.

It’s not, it’s very real as one of my clients (not based in Wiltshire) found out this week. He was slapped with a seemingly arbitrary fine of over £5,000 for sharing six articles (as photographs of the hard copy) in which he appeared in his local paper and one where his business was mentioned in a national publication which is free. Most of these articles were shared on his social media several years ago. The NLA had clearly trawled through his social media to find them and slapped him with a hefty fine. There is no right of appeal and no breakdown of how the fines are calculated.

He’s not alone. In supporting him I’ve found out more about the background, and I’ve had  contact with another small business owner who is also facing a similar fine. Together these two businesses are exploring how they can challenge the fines under the test of ‘fair use’ or ‘fair dealing’.

The truth is the NLA has existed quietly for over 20 years. Most journalists have not heard of it. When I started asking questions I’ve been told as a ‘PR’ that I should know all about it. Maybe that’s true but I did not until a few weeks ago when a post went viral from a small business owner on Facebook. Three newspaper editors and news editors I’ve dealt with since also didn’t know about it, so I’m in pretty good company.

After all, how can a private membership organisation enforce the law of the land just for its members? And not for non-members? How can you be fined for sharing something in hard copy – yet not if that story is online? How can you be fined for sharing a photograph of an article which contains a picture you have provided? How can you be fined for taking part freely in an editorial story and then sharing it to say thank you to the journalist for including you? How can you be fined when you have – in most cases – not received a penny for your time or your contribution or your cooperation? How can you be fined when the online version of an article offers up social media icons for you to share on your social media? Isn’t this a two-way street where we share to help each other?

Apparently not, if the publication is a member of the NLA. The assumption is that you will have made money for sharing that article in that way and you have to pay up.

As a journalist I find this devastating. I believe it’s another nail in the coffin of local newspapers in particular because they depend on good relationships with local businesses, charities, residents and organisations to keep going. It will help consign them to history if action is not taken by journalists to stop this in its tracks.

I was told by a legal mind at Reach plc (and I have the evidence to prove it) that ‘journalism has to be paid for’. He said that to a journalist of more than 30 years’ experience, a journalist who lost her job in television because no one wanted to cover the cost of investigative journalism any more.

I know more than most how tough it is to be a working journalist today. I’m very lucky that the outlets I write for as a freelancer are either not members of the NLA or are purely online so I know I can share freely BECAUSE THEY WANT ME TO SHARE AND THEY WANT ME TO HELP MAKE THEM VISIBLE. Indeed my modest online reach and audience makes me very attractive as a strategic business partner.

Safeguarding journalism?

The NLA does not safeguard journalism at all in my view. When a journalist, staff or freelance, writes a story for a publication they often have to sign away their rights to that copyright (either in a staff contract or an ad hoc contract). The publisher can use that article across multiple platforms or publications and generally the journalist gets paid once only. In fact sometimes those rights extend to the article being used overseas in related publications too.  

I suspect that the publishers belong to this organisation in the hope that once a year they get a pay-out for people that have ‘stolen’ their content. However be assured the journalists themselves are very unlikely to see any of that money. It will be sold as a way of them ‘keeping their jobs’ in a tough environment.

What about freelance journalists?

For freelance journalists, this means they need a licence to show their portfolio to anyone who wants to employ them. After all it’s not unreasonable for someone to say ‘can I see a sample of your work?” before employing someone as a freelancer. Anecdoctally I’ve heard that the NLA has told freelancers they won’t go after journalists. However that’s no guarantee. This is effectively slamming the door on freelance journalists who need to evidence their talent just like any other business person or professional.

There’s another reason it’s bad for journalists. They all rely on good contacts to sell in their stories, particularly to the nationals. As this becomes known, those contacts will be less willing to take part in stories or features if they are banned from sharing those stories on their own social media.

Many magazines for example don’t put their content online so hard copy is the only option. If journalists have to tell case studies ‘you cannot share this online at any time without a licence’ – there’s little benefit in taking part. More will demand payment for their time, or their photographs or they will simply not cooperate. This will damage journalists in the long term.

What about freelancer PRs?

It will also of course damage PR companies as well. Some already have licences so they can share coverage or pass on cuttings to their clients – however those licences do not (I understand) cover their clients sharing as well.

What will inevitably happen here is that PRs will advise clients to focus on online coverage heavily, support those publications which are not NLA members and also engage more fully with other providers of media exposure. These might be organisations which host guest blogs, bloggers, v-loggers, online news services, niche publications which are not NLA members or uber local publications which are small or overseas media services. Any outlet which fits into these categories is probably feeling pretty smug by now.

PRs will increasingly ask for online coverage only and gradually, as more fines are issued, the move away from hard copy will gather pace.

Copyright sucks, right?

Copyright is important for creatives – there’s no doubt about that. I’m not saying copyright law is wrong, I’m saying the application of it in this case is draconian and not fit for purpose in the modern world of communication.

For example photographers will often watermark their images which deters people from using them without payment being made. Videographers will have strong copyright terms as I do myself around how a final film can be presented or changed. Some painters and sculptors will clearly say that no images of their works can be shared on social media or even photographed and we have to respect that when it’s been made clear – or face the consequences.

I’ve not seen those clear and present disclaimers in any magazine or newspaper or made by any journalist writing for them. Indeed, currently in the NLA’s own blurb to those it wants to fine it says most people will not even know they are breaking the law. These are empty words as ‘ignorance’ is no defence in law.

However most artists need to do PR to sell their art. Most share images of their work to make it visible and attractive to buyers. They encourage their clients to do so too. The more prints an artist sells, the more the value of the original work rises. Where do you draw the line between what is reasonable and what is not?

Doesn’t this come down to what is ‘sharing’ and what is ‘stealing’? After all, if I created a newspaper or magazine which was clearly a rip-off of the local newspaper and called it Fiona Scott’s News or Fiona Scott’s Magazine – then that’s stealing. There’s nothing original in that.

However if I share an image of one article from one edition of a newspaper or magazine which appeared on a single day – and I said clearly where it came from – isn’t that sharing? And what’s the difference between sharing that as a photograph or a cutting – or sharing an online link to the same material?

For me the NLA is operating is a cynical way to make money out of people – particularly small business owners at the moment – for doing something most would assume was actually a good thing.

It’s a way of trying to monetise the online world because the world of hard copy is slipping away financially. It’s the act of desperate bean-counters who don’t understand really how true journalism works and how critical good relationships are for journalism. It’s also a way to consign relevant local newspapers to history.