Standpoint: Why publications must not act in haste against forwarding ePapers online

With pressures on margins and ad revenues dwindling – the story of businesses across the world currently– print media is in a vulnerable place right now. Newspaper and magazine publishers have turned to the Government, seeking bailout packages to tide over the massive disruption caused by the global COVID-19 pandemic.

Distribution of newspapers has been hit in several places and despite the intense campaigning by the print media assuring that newspapers are not carriers of the Coronavirus.

My mother, as well as all the people in my neighbourhood, have stopped subscribing to newspapers. Lots of RWAs across the country continue to bar the entry of newspapers even though their production and distribution has restarted. Sure, my mother misses holding the paper and pouring over the pages as she sips her morning tea. It is a habit formed over the last over half a century. Not at all tech savvy, she has turned to TV news channels to catch up on the latest developments. Most of my neighbours have also either switched to TV news or read their favourite dailies online – websites and ePaper versions. That helps them maintain connect with the paper they have been reading for years, during times of the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. Sometimes when they come across an interesting or important news, they do forward the PDF to their group over some social media platform, mostly WhatsApp.

Now we are told that this is an illegal activity, according to some publications and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). In its May 2, 2020 edition, Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar had reported that sharing PDF versions of newspapers on WhatsApp groups is a violation of the law. The report stated that this was causing revenue loss to the newspapers. A Gujarati daily also carried a news report on the same.

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On Monday, May 4, INS cautioned against piracy and theft of newspapers in digital format. A statement issued mentioned, “A lot of newspapers are available in the ePaper format online in the morning every day, some of them being paid and some being free. Many users are actually copying the newspaper and creating PDFs which they circulate in WhatsApp and Telegram groups to the readers - leading to a loss in both subscription revenue for the print newspapers as well as ePapers digitally.”

Meanwhile, a ‘Fact Check’ article by India Today Anti Fake News War Room (AFWA), clarified that ePaper PDFs that are free and not behind paywall can be shared. What is actually illegal is downloading and copying paid ePaper and sharing them on Telegram and WhatsApp.

There are several publications that offer their ePaper versions for free. Some, such as the Express Group have said that they will continue with the free PDFs. HT Media is also offering the ePapers of Hindustan Times and Hindustan for free, while one-month complimentary access is being given to business daily Mint. The ePapers of Business Line and The Hindu are being offered for free trial for a period of 21 days and 15 days, respectively. The April 2020 edition of Forbes India can be downloaded for free.

The communications industry regularly collects clippings of news articles of their clients, as well as print ads appearing on various publications. With no access to the physical newspapers, the industry has been forwarding the ePaper PDFs to their clients and stakeholders. Will this become an illegal activity now?

Won’t it make more sense for publications to temporarily remove the paywall and allow free access to their ePaper versions during these times of disruption? With no access to print editions, people are anyways visiting the news publications’ websites and getting the news for free. Free access to ePaper PDFs will naturally increase eyeballs, which in turn will attract advertisers.

INS has been fighting to claim the pending dues by ad agencies and has written to them cautioning them of action in case they do not clear all print dues pertaining to Monthly Review Verification (MRV 01/20 & MRV 02/20) immediately.

Digital piracy is a serious issue. Hence, copying and sharing ePapers that are behind paywall is illegal. However, it may be noted here that the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting has not stated that forwarding or sharing of ePaper PDFs on digital media is illegal. Hence, publications can decide for themselves whether or not to allow such forwards.

Here, one is not sure how publications will track such “illegal” forwards. Will tracking add to the already fragile revenue situation for the publications?

Won’t giving free access to ePaper editions be more of a win-win move by publications, at least, till the time the COVID-19 impact is prevailing?


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