Possession is nine tenths of the law online too

Jack Riley

450px The associate 230864a Possession is nine tenths of the law online tooWith the BBC under sustained assault, their move last week to allow limited syndication of their video content to four national newspaper websites (including The Independent, here, for example) was greeted with a healthy measure of cynicism by media commentators who wrote off the move as an attempt to distract from the uncompetitive advantage the Beeb receives in the form of tax-payer funding. But what has received far less coverage, in the UK at least, is the latest skirmish in the ongoing guerilla war that’s been waged by American newspaper co-operative Associated Press on those who share their content on almost exactly the same issue.

In essence the AP and the BBC, two journalistic monoliths of the modern media age, are wrestling with the same problem; how to control access to the wealth of expensive content they produce everyday. And while the BBC is a state sector institution, the AP (‘the world’s oldest newsgathering organisation’, although it’s probably best not to ask the exact age) is a co-operative of American newspapers who earn money selling their collective reporting skills to other outlets around the world. But the news agency has found itself the subject of mockery from the blogosphere for their badly-implemented new service for charging users for using copyrighted material. As James Grimmelmann found, the service, designed to charge users who want to pay to reproduce AP-copyrighted material on their blogs, fails to differentiate between text from the actual article and any other text, AP or not. It was thus that he managed to be charged $12.50 for the privilege of quoting Thomas Jefferson’s famous correspondence with Isaac McPherson regarding the ridiculousness of copyright rules (oh, the irony).

While there’s nothing clever about convincing a website to rip you off through your own misuse – plenty of people manage to do that without even trying – what is more relevant is that such poor checks and measures undermine the entire system of attribution AP is trying to put into place. AP’s crusade against those who would seek to use their headlines has previously targeted everyone from bloggers to news aggregator sites, as well as Twitter and collections of links like the Drudge Retort (who it started legal action against last year, before a quick about-face by AP vice president and strategy director Jim Kennedy). They’ve made their fair share of mis-steps in this crusade, none worse, perhaps, than sending out a cease-and-desist letter to a radio station (itself an AP affiliate) for embedding videos from YouTube which AP uploaded and selected to allow embedding for themselves.

While Messrs Arrington and Schonfeld’s argument that the issue is one of outdated business modelsis perhaps one of the more grave opinions voiced in the debate, it’s worth listening to, even though it comes from a blog which has decided to protest the problem by pretending the Associated Press doesn’t exist. With news websites desperate for copy as soon as possible after an event has happened (and often willing to pay for it) on one side, and aggregators and bloggers comparably keen for fast, raw news of the kind AP offers on the other, their real dilemma is that they are now simultaneously more in demand, and more at risk, than ever.

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