MAUIWatch is Hawaii’s fastest growing news service — and yet it’s only on Facebook.

Six months ago, Maui resident Neldon Mamuad started a MAUIWatch page that quickly grew to become the county’s most popular Facebook page with more than 23,000 fans. They often crowdsource images and information on weird weather, accidents, road closures, crazy high milk prices and the like. In some ways, it is the definition of news you can use — and share.

And people share by the thousands. As a testament to their initial success, MAUIWatch is launching its own website. The company even plans to add a weather forecaster, the popular former Hawaii News Now weather reporter Malika Dudley.

So where does MAUIWatch fit into the new media ecosystem? It is not just professional journalists performing “acts of journalism,” as has been written. People contribute to MAUIWatch every day even if they don’t work for traditional news organizations and they aren’t paid. They are sharing news and they are even generating news, in some ways like traditional journalists.

But they don’t enjoy the legal protections afforded to professional reporters and editors.

The problem is that for our very different new media, old rules and laws still apply. One sign of this is how lawmakers continue to wrestle with out-dated questions about who is and who isn’t a journalist.

Even professional journalists struggle to understand how current laws apply to social media. Is Twitter a publication? Or more to the point, can you libel someone with a tweet (or “twibel,” as it is sometimes called)?

On a different level, can a journalist use a public Facebook picture as a photograph to accompany an article? Should they pay for it or is it in the public domain since it is already available for anyone to see?

Some such questions can be answered by people taking part in a weekly chat on Twitter every Wednesday at 3 p.m. Hawaii time. Web journalists across the U.S. discuss issues facing digital media and traditional journalism today, using the hashtag #wjchat.

The Feb. 5 discussion revolved around copyright law and digital journalism. We benefited from an experienced panel of media attorneys: Ellyn Angelotti of the Poynter Institute, Kurt Opsahl of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and Los Angeles media attorneys Lincoln Bandlow, Lisa Borodkin and Jack Lerner.

You can find the entire two-hour discussion in Angelotti’s Storify article on the discussion. (Storify is a popular web tool to help users create narratives by pulling social media posts into a thread.) Angelotti’s recap is a quick, but essential read for anyone who blogs or seriously engages with social media.

The main advice from all of the panelists and the real takeaway of the discussion is that people need to be mindful of the four standards of fair use that every judge looks at in copyright cases:

  • The purpose and character of use.
  • The nature of the copyrighted work.
  • The amount and substance of the portion used — like how much of a book was copied and pasted or how much of a song was played.
  • The effect of the use upon the relevant potential market.

This Stanford University overview offers a nice, detailed description of the four standards.

Local compliance and transactions attorney Ryan K. Hew also agrees that journalists and bloggers should digest these factors. He notes that many people in Hawaii confuse what copyright actually means.

“You don’t need to register a copyright with a copyright office,” said Hew, one of the few local attorneys who also has a prominent social media presence. “As soon as you put the pen to paper, you own it. You have a copyright. The only reason why we ask people to register is that it gives you access to greater damages.” That damage could be up to $150,000 per instance, if it was a “willful” violation of copyright law, he noted.

“If I’m Company A and you’re Company B, and I liked your picture and used it in my ad campaign, clearly that’s a copyright infringement,” Hew said. “You get into gray area when it starts to become noncommercial and it goes into educational purposes. The more educational it is, the less likely there’s an infringement, like if I’m a school and I’m taking your things to educate children about certain issues.”

“If your usage is more educational, or factual like in the journalistic arena, those areas would be more protected.”

This leads back to why journalism, not just journalists, should be protected under Hawaii’s law. We are all in limbo, professional or not, as Hawaii enters its second year without a shield law.

Folks like MAUIWatch will continue to grow, and residents will not only rely on them for information, but feed their page and site with information and photos. A shield law would have the potential to protect the media, but also the public, when they perform small acts of journalism each day.

“The idea that press freedom is about protecting journalists is anachronistic, something we have pasted onto an older idea,” Rebecca Rosen wrote in The Atlantic. “When Thomas Jefferson wrote about press freedom, the idea of a professional journalist didn’t exist in any modern sense. His ideas were motivated by the dual legacies of licensing and censorship.”

As pointed out in this paper by Press Freedom Director Josh Stearns of Free Press, the age of the Founding Fathers had no newspapers, just pamphlets.

“Today’s pamphleteers use iPhones and blogs instead of carbon paper, but their acts of journalism still deserve protection,” Stearns wrote. “That’s why when (Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin) argues that ‘not every blogger, tweeter or Facebook user is a journalist,’ he misses the point that all of them have the potential to engage in journalism.”

Two shield law proposals have been introduced.

State Sen. Laura Thielen explains the differences between the two in a blog post two weeks ago.(Yes, politicians can engage in acts of journalism, too.)

Neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing, but these bills need to be heard. When it comes to updating media laws for Hawaii, if lawmakers drag their feet, it will be at the peril of the people — and the people ultimately hire the politicians.

Follow Civil Beat on Facebook and Twitter. You can also sign up for Civil Beat’s free daily newsletter.

About the Author