As someone with a foot in both the PR and SEO camps, I’ve been aware of the Newspaper Licensing Agency’s (NLA) licence to print money for sometime: I had the privilege of asking my clients to pay for future licences but also to make a historic payment for copies of paper coverage made before our licence was in place. Daylight robbery in my opinion but the agency I worked for back then had no option other than to tow the line.

My jaw hit the floor however, when I learnt about the details of the NLA vs. Meltwater & PRCA case. In particular the details that business users may need a licence to use media aggregators like Google News and Google Alerts, struck me as ludicrous and comical at the same time. Here are some immediate thoughts:

  • Two of the tools frequently used by SEOs are Google News and Google Alerts to see where their clients already have links, where their high ranking competitors have links and to track recent announcements issued on a client’s behalf. (The idea being that the agency will try to replicate the competitors links in order to raise the profile and traffic of their own clients.) SEOs particularly value high profile links / coverage on news sites and therefore any agency worth its salt will be looking to create news and content that might appear on these sites. I find it a difficult pill to swallow that if the NLA gets its way, we will need a licence to search for content that we/our clients provided in the first place.
  • Secondly, in a similar way to Meltwater providing links to its clients, any SEO worth its salt will provide a ‘link report’ showing where links have been obtained that month. Now whilst most newspapers admittedly have a policy of not linking out or using no follow links, it is not unheard of to get a link from a newspaper’s website – particular local press. In which case, the SEO agency would include this link within its link report, alongside all other link sources. I wonder whether, not content with chasing PR agencies, the NLA will now also be in pursuit of SEO agencies for a slice of their pie too.
  • My third point relates to the very openness of the web: anyone who works in digital shares a passion for the ability to share information. Reigning in Google News and Google Alerts seems to go against the very fundamentals of the web. There will surely be a huge backlash if the very basis of the web in undermined.

Finally there is Google’s involvement. To date, they seem to have kept stum but I wonder what the search engine itself makes of this. With the launch of Google+ and previously Google Wave (remember that?), the shared web seems to be very much within its sights but will the powers that be see an opportunity to grow its profits?

If the Supreme Court rules that business users do need a licence to use Google News and Google Alerts, how will this be monitored? Google obviously has its business users’ email addresses but I can’t imagine it will be happy or within data protection to share them. Indeed, what constitutes a business ‘user’ will be hard to police too.

A ruling will be announced in February 2013 but even if the Supreme Court’s decision favours the NLA, I suspect it will be sometime before the ‘Google’ aspect of the case has any real implications for UK business, due to the scale of policing required. And for me personally, it’s simply too Big Brother-esque to be taken seriously.