The AP vs. the Internet: It's All in the Details

The Associated Press is waging a new war on Web sites that use its content without permission. Before you prepare to pounce, though, take a careful look at the AP's current argument. It might not be what you think.

The Associated Press Announcement

Let me get you caught up: The AP announced this week that it'll be implementing new systems to better protect its content and keep sites from publishing its stories without paying.

"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories," says AP Chairman Dean Singleton. "We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore."

The AP says it'll start working to more effectively track its content and hunt down illegal usages. When it finds those, it'll sue the sites/publishers responsible.

Blogger Backlash

Not surprisingly, the announcement has created a massive backlash across the blogosphere, with writers calling the move the AP's "last stance" and branding the organization as a modern-day "bad cop." Those sentiments may well be true. But we don't really know enough details yet to say for sure.

To be clear, I've been the first to jump down the AP's throat in the past when the company has announced asinine plans such as its own "set of standards" for quoting published material. That debacle last June made the AP look antiquated and idiotic. In the Internet era, you'd hope one of the world's top news-gathering organizations would learn to adapt and embrace modern culture for its benefit rather than try in vain to fight it.

In this instance, though, I'm not sure that the AP is doing the same thing. While initial reactions suggested the new plan might target blogs or aggregation services for simply featuring small snippets of stories, it's not clear that that's actually the case.

Google and the AP

Just today, Google posted a public response to the AP's announcement in which it stated that the plan didn't "appear to pertain to Google." The articles hosted in-full on Google News are published via a paid license agreement, the company says, while the small excerpts and links in search results are protected under the U.S. Copyright Act's fair use doctrine.

"The fair use doctrine protects transformative uses of content, such as indexing to make it easier to find," says Alexander Macgillivray, Google's associate general counsel for products and intellectual property.

All Considered

Placement in a Google search is beneficial to any content provider, of course, and judging by Google's response, that may not be the AP's target. The issue, then, likely comes down to the smaller aggregation and blog sites that use some form of the AP's content. While the AP itself has yet to reveal the specifics of its plans, my hope is that it won't repeat the ridiculous tactics we saw in last summer's battle against bloggers. Trying to shut down all quoting and linking is silly and goes against the group's own best interests.

If, however, the AP is looking to prevent sites from fully copying and republishing its material without permission, then it actually has a valid point. It's amazing to see how many Web sites take the liberty of lifting entire pages (or massive chunks) of content and republishing them on their own servers without thinking twice. Referencing, quoting, and commenting on a news story while linking to the original source is an important part of the online information culture. Outright stealing the content, however, is not. The AP may very well be on another foolhardy mission -- but it may also just be taking an understandable step to protect the value of its product, whatever that might be.

Until the company reveals the details of its latest dance, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt. If it becomes clear its intent is to tread down another witless warpath, it'll be another story altogether. At that point, the cries of "clueless" and "obsolete" will be far more warranted, and I'll be right at the front lines throwing out the fighting words with everyone else.

Connect with JR Raphael on Twitter (@jr_raphael) or via his Web site, jrstart.com.

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