Murky Waters: The AP's New Content Protection Plan

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Yesterday, the Associated Press came out with its anticipated scheme to protect AP content from unauthorized use. The news co-op's latest brainchild (described in this announcement) is a content management database that will keep tabs on where AP articles, photos, and videos appear online. The content registry will start out with AP staff-originated material only, but will start reaching out to content of member news outlets early next year.

AP Content: Now with Spyware?

As part of its protection scheme, all AP content will come with a piece of software that will set out the terms of use for each article, and have a "built-in beacon" to let the AP know how its content is being used. If a member news organization decides to join up with the AP on its voyage to nowhere, the new system will provide content owners with "detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services, and enforcement support." Not only that, but the AP says the new database will also allow members to create pay walls around their content -- I guess because pay walls have worked so well in the past.

ap copyright
When the AP announced its new plan yesterday, The New York Times asked the AP's chief executive, Tom Curley if the new policy would go beyond the content protection policies the AP has tried before. Curley responded by saying, "That's right." Curley also said the AP was not trying to reduce the use of its content online, but it simply wants to be paid for any use of its materials.

Pay Up

Any use? Is the AP expecting payment even if you simply link to their article or quote the headline? It's not clear, and that's the point. For example, the AP's Jean Seagrave, senior vice president for global product development, told InformationWeek the news organization is not going after bloggers, but sites that engage in "large-scale copying of AP content."

Is it just me, or does it sound like Curley and Seagrave are talking about adopting two different policies? What's going on here? 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?

The AP has tried something like this before. Last year, the news organization underwent a sever lambasting after the AP decided to take on bloggers over their habit of quoting the AP's articles. That led to an AP content pricing scheme where you can pay as much as $12.50 for excerpting five words of an AP story.

Challenge for Search Engines

Another question hanging over the AP's new policy is what this will mean for search engines and news aggregators. These services routinely provide links to AP content with a snippet of the article included. Google has argued in the past this practice is protected under the legal doctrine of fair use, and other services have made the same argument. Of course, major sites like Google and Yahoo have licensing agreements with the AP to display full articles, so it's unlikely the news organization will go after services like Google News.

Or is it? Here's an interesting quote from Curley during The New York Times interview, "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."

Say what? The big business built out of keywords Curley refers to sounds like he's talking about search engines, but I hope the AP is not seriously considering an attempt to get Web sites and search engines to fork over cash for embedding links back to AP content. That would mean the AP would be trying to charge these online services for the privilege of driving Web traffic to AP stories and member sites.

Charging for links would almost certainly result in a significant decline in traffic to AP content, and thus reduce the news organization's online presence. I guess we'll have to wait and see how AP tries to enforce this new content protection scheme before we know for sure how the program will work. But one thing's for sure: Nothing about the AP's plans are clear.

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul) or on FriendFeed.

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