More on the Associated Press Copyright Move

My post refuting some of the nonsense going around about the new AP initiative on copyright kicked up a bit of a storm in comments over the weekend, and I was called an “apologist” for and “mouthpiece” of AP for printing it.

The key point of my post, again, was this: 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:

The Associated Press is moving ahead with plans for a system to detect unlicensed use of its content and potentially create new ways for the 163-year-old news cooperative and other media to make more money on the Internet.

As part of a strategy approved Thursday by the AP’s board, the cooperative will start by bundling its text stories in an “informational wrapper” that will include a built-in beacon to monitor where stories go on the Internet.

If I started doing this kind of link and quote for every story the AP publishes, then we’d have a problem. That’s what the AP doesn’t like: Sites that systematically use its content to draw traffic and sell ads against it.

“Systematically” is not my word, but the AP’s itself. Jane Seagrave, the AP’s senior vice president for global product development who talked to me on Friday, used it in a follow-up email sent after I asked the AP to review my post and tell me if I misunderstood what it was doing:

I thought (you) did a great job of synthesizing our conversation and quoted me accurately. I don’t see any inconsistency. We do believe all our content has value, and the focus of our efforts is on the bad actors who systematically misappropriate it without permission and make money off it without payment. We have no intention of sending out the troops to stamp out individual use of our content.

Much of the to-do has come from this paragraph in a New York Times story on Friday:

Tom Curley, The A.P.’s president and chief executive, said 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.

You’ll note that this is a paraphrase of Curley’s comments. In response to a specific question about this paragraph, the AP tells me it does not apply to individual bloggers—that Curley meant this in the context of systematic appropriation of content. Bloggers won’t have to get a license to use AP content in the manner I did above.

One of the good questions raised about all this is how much money piracy of its stories really costs the AP. I don’t have a clue. The AP told me at least “tens of millions of dollars” but it didn’t have a solid estimate. Today’s New York Times has a story about a journalism-piracy cop called Attributor, which did a study that purported to find that the twenty-five publishers it studied lost an estimated $250 million from “unauthorized copying.”

Take that $250 million number with a salt shaker since it comes from a company trying to build a business in combating such stuff.

But that doesn’t mean there’s no money in the area. The AP itself won a settlement last week from a site called All Headline News, which had workers rewriting AP copy and publishing it. If that company was able to pay for relatively labor-intensive work like that, there’s probably revenue there. How much is a legitimate question—but one I don’t know how to answer.

And another point: The AP must do a better job of communicating what its intentions are and what’s fair game for linking and quoting (apparently that will be part of the instructions contained in the “wrapper”). It has failed at this before, most notably with the Drudge Retort imbroglio last year, in which the AP wrongly went after a blog for linking and quoting excerpts, although that wasn’t the whole story—it had posted entire stories, too, as Robert Cox of the Media Bloggers Association who represented Drudge Retort explained at the time.

Finally, my saying the AP isn’t going after what is obviously fair use by individuals doesn’t mean I don’t think there aren’t plenty of things to pick at with this initiative: Whether the “wrapper” makes any sense technologically. How much money the piracy problem actually costs the AP. Whether the “systematic” uses of its content the AP is going after (including, perhaps, by the search engines) are protected by fair use. And much more I’m sure.

Have at that, I say.

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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.