Anatomy of a Zombie Lie

The AP and the "charging $12.50 to quote five words" meme

As I wrote last week, bloggers have repeatedly pumped the story that the AP charges us to quote its stories. Problem is, that story’s just false and has been so since the meme first arose two years ago.

So how did this zombie lie come to be and why can’t we put it to rest?

Danny Sullivan pointed out in comments that the AP has a somewhat-confusing copyright-licensing scheme (a third party service called iCopyright) linked at the bottom of each story. But that’s no excuse for savvy blogs like techdirt and TechCrunch to repeat what they know to be nonsense. Techdirt’s Mike Masnick said this in comments:

Sure the AP says it won’t charge, but it has threatened bloggers with lawsuits, and it hasn’t changed the iCopyright form. The reason that we keep pointing it out is to highlight the blatant hypocrisy of the AP’s position.

But those lawsuits takedown notices aren’t related to the charging-for-quotes story.

The AP sent Rogers Cadenhead (who also comments on my original post) takedown notices after his users put up several whole AP stories on Drudge Retort, along with snippets of several other ones. Cadenhead didn’t dispute the first group, but said the second was fair use. He got a lawyer, the fight went viral, a guy who came to Cadenhead’s aid got wrongly mauled by a blog lynch mob, and the AP quickly apologized for being “heavy-handed” in the dustup.

During the midst of this, a blogger spotted the iCopyright thing and started the “Associated Press wants to charge you $12.50 to quote five words from them” meme.

What is iCopyright? It’s a third-party company that sells licenses for commercial use of copyrighted material. “Commercial use” being the key words here—like when a company buys reprints of a favorable story about it to use in its own marketing. The iCopyright site, alas, isn’t exactly clear on who should pay for a license and why.

So the AP went on the record when this story first blew up two years ago saying iCopyright is not aimed at bloggers. And then it issued an official statement in August 2009 after another fake blog controversy was stirred up—this time over the false idea that the dastardly AP was going to try to prevent people from linking to its stories. Again, it said the iCopyright form was not for bloggers.

The irony here is that by making hay and getting pageviews out of this false controversy, the bloggers perpetuating this stuff are creating more of a chilling effect on the quoting of AP material than the iCopyright boilerplate itself ever would have, linked as it is in tiny type at the bottom of the wire’s stories.

Sullivan said in his comment:

Sure, TechCrunch and PaidContent may know better. But so does the AP, which has failed to change the form that caused the outcry in the first place. So when it come back to bite them again, I think the blame is more with the AP.

I disagree that the blame is more with the AP—the whole story is bogus—but that’s not to say that it and iCopyright are blameless. The AP mishandled the Cadenhead case, as they’ve admitted, and the iCopyright language—for the 0.001 percent of people who click through to it—doesn’t explicitly say that it’s for commercial use. Then again, it’s worth noting that the AP doesn’t (and can’t) get to define what fair use is—the courts do.

At no time has anyone said the AP tried to force them to use the iCopyright service, which is also, you should note, used by folks like the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which has also gone through a (much milder, as befitting our neighbors to the north) blog scrum of its own because of it.

It’s also worth noting that The New York Times has the same kind of third-party licensing service at the bottom of each of its stories, in this case Rightslink by Copright Clearance Center. If you follow it, you can ream the Times for “charging bloggers by the word,” but I don’t see anybody doing so.

The bottom line is: The AP and iCopyright should update the service to explicitly state that it’s for commercial use of content like reprints. But bloggers should quit saying the AP charges bloggers to quote five words or whatever.

It doesn’t. Stop misleading your readers.

Further Reading:

Woot Raises a Zombie Lie From the Dead (Again): The AP does not charge bloggers to quote its stories

Relax, Bloggers. The AP Isn’t Out to Get You. Another blog storm misses.

More on the Associated Press Copyright Move. The AP is not going to go after me or you for doing what I’m about to do here, which is link to one of its stories and quote from it:

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.