Relax, Bloggers. The AP Isn’t Out to Get You

I started a post this morning about the issue causing much, um, consternation amongst the media blogs today: The Associated Press initiative to fight copyright infringement of its content.

I was all ready to write something like everybody else that said something to the effect of the AP being stupid if it thought it could restrict people from quoting a few words of its headlines and linking to them. That’s clearly what most of us think of fair use (though on breaking news I guess there could be an exemption under the “hot-news doctrine”) and the AP, as the biggest news organization in the country, ought not be on the side of infringing on the First Amendment.

But then I paused for like two seconds and thought “Is the AP really this stupid?” So I rang up media relations in New York to ask them.

Unsurprisingly, they’re really not that stupid.

The blogger line, apparently taken from a New York Times paragraph, goes like this: The AP is going to fight anybody who links to its stories or quotes a few words from its headlines—because it just doesn’t get the Internet.

Here’s a typically overheated bit from Jeff Jarvis:

The Associated Press is becoming the enemy of the internet because it is fighting the link and the link is the basis of the internet.

Damned dirty AP!

And some from Patrick Thornton (h/t Matthew Ingram):

The AP either has never heard of the Fair Use Doctrine or openly opposes it. I’m betting on the later. Now, it’s important to note that Fair Use is a defense, not a right and it doesn’t explicitly spell out anything about word counts, headlines, links, etc.

But from the people I have talked to, headlines and links fall under current definitions of Fair Use. The question then is this: Is the AP gearing up for a court battle? If they implement this policy they will find themselves in court by at least the EFF and probably many more.

You can find much more like this if you for some reason wish to.

But the AP’s Jane Seagrave, senior vice president of global product development, tells me that all this isn’t true. It has no intent to nail individual bloggers for linking to stories or quoting headlines. It’s going after wholesale theft of its content by websites trying to make a profit off of it.

“We want to stop wholesale misappropriation of our content which does occur right now—people who are copying and pasting or taking by RSS feeds dozens or hundreds of our stories.” Seagrave tells me. “Are we going to worry about individuals using our stories here and there? That isn’t our intent. That’s being fueled by people who want to make us look silly. But we’re not silly.”

If you haven’t run across these rewrite or sometimes copy-and-paste mills that steal content, you haven’t looked very hard. I asked Seagrave if she could quantify how much these sites cost it. She said it’s hard to tell, but “it’s got to be in the tens if not the hundreds of millions.” I’d like to see a firmer estimate.

She also said the “wrapper” software that’s caused so much controversy wouldn’t prevent people from linking or quoting its stories and headlines:

“This is not digital-rights management that says no you can’t,” she says. “It says this is how you can.”

It remains to be seen whether the “wrapper” will actually work and if it will have unintended consequences.

I’d also note that sites like Google pay the AP, so it’s not going after Google. It’s going after those who don’t pay it for doing things similar to what Google News does.

So, bloggers, take a deep breath, exhale, and find another bugaboo.

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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.