This week the Associated Press (AP) made a huge splash in the blogosphere by
filing seven takedown notices against the Digg-like social news community the
Drudge Retort. According to an
article in Monday’s New York Times, the AP will “define clear
standards as to how much of its articles and broadcasts bloggers and Web sites
can excerpt without infringing on The A.P.’s copyright.” The proposed
standards (see graphic) include a pay-per-word model.
The AP’s decision-and Saul’s article-have brought many a blogger to Critical
Alert Red. TechCrunch founder Michael Arrington banned AP articles, saying
“The A.P. doesn’t get to make it’s own rules around how its content is
used, if those rules are stricter than the law allows.” He later pointed
his flamethrower at the New York Times, with a post entitled “The
NYTimes Is Conflicted And Wrong About The A.P. And Needs To Stop Defending Them.”
bloggers echoed Arrington’s sentiment, but none seemed as foreboding as
BuzzMachine’s Jeff Jarvis. Jarvis, an associate professor at City
University of New York’s Graduate School of Journalism and founder of
Entertainment Weekly, tied the situation to a broader trend, the failure of old
media to evolve with the times. In particular, Jarvis says the AP “is
desperate to monetize its ownership of content and can’t face the prospect that
this model is dying.”
The problem is this: the way people consume content has changed. In the 1800’s,
send reporters to pick up the news and then bring it back for print in their
papers. With the invention of the telegraph, news could be shared quickly and
easily. Editors realized this and, ever looking to save a buck, the AP was formed in 1846
to save money and ease distribution.
For almost 75 years, the cooperative lived in harmony. Bureaus were set up,
and editors everywhere shared news peacefully–until 1918. While U.S. soldiers
were sent overseas to fight in World War I, the AP was entrenched in a court
battle of its own against another news service, Hearst’s International News
The conflict started when INS lost access to the Allied Forces telegraph
line for unfavorable coverage of British losses. Cut off from its bureaus in the
INS was no longer able to report news in a timely manner. To stay afloat,
William Randolph Hearst’s INS began rewriting the AP’s news, and republishing
as its own without any attribution. The AP, sensing the threat to its
pocketbook, took INS to court. In 1918, the court ruled in favor of the AP.
While the topical news and facts could not be copyrighted, the “hot
news” (or timely news) was a competitive advantage and therefore entitled
Today, the cooperative has grown to more than 1,700 member newspapers
worldwide. The problem is, news is neither distributed nor consumed in the same
manner it was 100 years ago-or even 10 years ago! Increasingly, more consumers
are turning to communities or aggregate sites to help them sort through the
content. Blogs summarize news and give opinion. Sites like Digg and StumbleUpon
democratize news. Even Google News and TechMeme let consumers pick and choose
what they want to read.
Many papers large and small embrace these various distribution methods.
They acknowledge the increase in traffic they receive thanks to linking. The AP
is expensive, but sharing content online is, well, mostly free. They have
formed link exchanges, and syndicate content from new media outlets. They are
doing what the AP originally set out to do: form co-ops to ease distribution and
cut costs. Sounds like this would be a perfect time for the AP to step in and
develop a modern version of its mission. Instead, they attack bloggers.
As a content creator, I’m all for intellectual property; copying content is
the modern day stealing. But the law entitles “fair use.” Sure, the
lines of fair use are blurry, but they are up for the judicial system to
interpret. By setting their own restrictions, the AP takes the role of legislator
and stifles legal discussion. When media companies become large enough that
they can intimidate smaller, legitimate news creators, we should all be scared.
Instead of looking to silence, the AP (like any modern brand) needs to figure
out how to let go and join the conversation.
Christopher Lynn loves video and social media strategy. With clients from the social networking, mobile, online advertising and consumer tech industries, Chris works at SHIFT Communications‘ San Francisco office, and blogs at SocialTNT.