On Thursday last week, the Associated Press (AP) announced its intention to protect its news content from being “misappropriated” online by attaching an electronic “beacon” to articles, photos and videos to track where and how they’re being used — or misused. Quoth the US wire news service’s chairman Dean Singleton in an AP press release:

What we are building here is a way for good journalism to survive and thrive. The AP news registry will allow our industry to protect its content online, and will assure that we can continue to provide original, independent and authoritative journalism at a time when the world needs it more than ever.

Entirely predictably, the internet exploded in a storm of indignation.

HuffPo‘s Jeff Jarvis declared AP the “enemy of the Internet” because “it is fighting the link and the link is the basis of the Internet” (irony alert: AP content is just about the only news The Huffington Post actually pays to syndicate, instead of the unedited excerpt-and-link treatment it gives to other aggregated news sources).

Rex Hammock pronounced the AP “absolutely nuts“.

Is AP run by idiots?” asks BNET.

But are they really setting out to “destroy the link” and kill the web for freedom lovers everywhere? asks BusinessWeek:

Is the AP expecting payment even if you simply link to their article or quote the headline? It’s not clear … Is the AP going to pursue every blogger who throws in an AP link, or just those fringe sites that post full versions of AP articles?

It certainly isn’t clear from the company’s press release. What has got the blog world all riled up is actually this NYT interview with AP President and CEO Tom Curley, which says:

…[Curley says] the company’s position was that even minimal use of a news article online required a licensing agreement with the news organization that produced it. In an interview, he specifically cited references that include a headline and a link to an article, a standard practice of search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, news aggregators and blogs.

“If someone can build multibillion-dollar businesses out of keywords, we can build multihundred-million businesses out of headlines, and we’re going to do that.”

That truly is a different proposition. The presser indicates AP simply want to stop wholesale theft of its content — Curley’s interview indicates the company wants to cash in any time anyone, anywhere on the Internet simply links to or quotes from AP news.

Can they even do that? Journalist Patrick Thornton says no:

The AP either has never heard of the Fair Use Doctrine or openly opposes it. I’m betting on the latter. Now, it’s important to note that Fair Use is a defense, not a right and it doesn’t explicitly spell out anything about word counts, headlines, links, etc.

But from the people I have talked to, headlines and links fall under current definitions of Fair Use. The question then is this: Is the AP gearing up for a court battle? If they implement this policy they will find themselves in court by at least the EFF and probably many more.

Online media guru Scott Rosenberg agrees, as does Hot Air‘s Ed Morrissey:

… the AP doesn’t get to determine what “fair use” means; Congress does … Just because the AP doesn’t like copyright law doesn’t mean it doesn’t still applies to them.

As it often does, The Columbia Journalism Review provided the calm voice of reason amongst the cacophany of foot-stomping bloggers, asking “Is the AP really this stupid?” and employing the ground-breaking journalistic technique of actually contacting the AP for clarification:

… the AP’s Jane Seagrave, senior vice president of global product development, tells me [AP] has no intent to nail individual bloggers for linking to stories or quoting headlines. It’s going after wholesale theft of its content by websites trying to make a profit off of it.

“We want to stop wholesale misappropriation of our content which does occur right now — people who are copying and pasting or taking by RSS feeds dozens or hundreds of our stories.” Seagrave tells me. “Are we going to worry about individuals using our stories here and there? That isn’t our intent. That’s being fueled by people who want to make us look silly. But we’re not silly.”

So, bloggers, take a deep breath, exhale, and find another bugaboo.

That probably should put the matter to bed, but the blogging world (perhaps justifiably) remains suspicious of the company’s motives and intentions. As TechDirt notes:

… the AP might not be “going after bloggers” now, but it certainly has shown a willingness to do so in the past. At some point, you can bet it will happen again. Furthermore, the AP claims that it’s really only going after “wholesale misappropriation.” Hmm. How is that defined?

TechDirt has also highlighted other issues with the AP’s plans — comparing the move to the music and software industries’ abortive attempts to use digital protection to stop file-sharing and arguing that the technology will be simply too easy to bypass:

It physically can’t work. News is news. You can’t put any real DRM on it, because it’s so easy to copy text and remove any sort of “registry” tags.


At a time when the AP should be focusing on looking for ways to add value to create a better business model, it’s now about to throw away money, time and staff on putting together a DRM for news that doesn’t work? Talk about screwed up priorities.

And that may be the real story in the AP content protection debacle: whether information should or should not be free is now beside the point. Attempting to keep anything under lock and key in the digital age — especially something so easy to appropriate as text — is a mug’s game and news organisations will just end up chasing their tails attempting to pull it off (just ask the people who forward the Crikey Daily Mail to their entire address books every single day).

If the AP better directed its energies into working with bloggers and netizens, instead of publicly declaring its intention to create a “multihundred-million businesses out of headlines” and thus giving the impression it’s trying to squeeze those people dry — regardless of whether it is or not — the company can probably avoid PR disasters and a whole bucket-load of ill-will like this in the future. Then, hey, maybe those same people will be less likely to rip their content off in the first place.