June 18, 2008

Well, Look Who Doesn't Understand the Internet

THE ASSOCIATED PRESS has found itself in a bit of hot water this week. Apparently, the news cooperative was upset a blogger had posted several items relying on AP content, with excerpts of between 39 and 79 words in each of the offending entries. This prompted the AP to send a letter to the blogger in question telling him to remove the items; the blogger then went and told the entire Internet, and everyone got angry about it.

Now the AP has backtracked, realizing it didn't handle the matter well. Still, they're not entirely backing down, as The New York Times -- and not the AP -- reports:

The Associated Press, one of the nation’s largest news organizations, said that it will, for the first time, attempt to define clear standards as to how much of its articles and broadcasts bloggers and Web sites can excerpt without infringing on The A.P.’s copyright.

The A.P.’s effort to impose some guidelines on the free-wheeling blogosphere, where extensive quoting and even copying of entire news articles is common, may offer a prominent definition of the important but vague doctrine of “fair use,” which holds that copyright owners cannot ban others from using small bits of their works under some circumstances. For example, a book reviewer is allowed to quote passages from the work without permission from the publisher. Fair use has become an essential concept to many bloggers, who often quote portions of articles before discussing them.

I would be sympathetic to the AP's claims if a blogger in question had copied the entirety of its story, did so without providing a link back to the original piece, and then offered no original commentary of his own. That would be outright theft, and in a situation like that, the AP would have every right to say, "Hey. Wait a minute."

However, it is difficult to be sympathetic when the AP is going after a blogger for excerpting as little as 39 words from a story. That's downright ridiculous. It is even more ridiculous when clever bloggers, such as Patrick Nielsen Hayden, reveal the Associated Press sells rights to private parties to quote from its stories, starting at $12.50 for excerpts between five and 25 words in length. "In this spirit," Mr Nielsen Hayden wrote, "I will shortly be putting up my own Web form through which people can PayPal me money in exchange for my promise to not blow up the moon."

Now, it is one thing to sell reprint rights for a story; that is standard practice for any newspaper. But charging for a quote or two is not only silly -- there's that whole pesky fair use doctrine -- but cheap.

As for these standards to be developed -- well, good luck with that.

You see, here's the trouble. The AP is a cooperative and a wire agency. This means two things. First, nearly all of its copy comes from its member newspapers. Second, when the AP does write about important happenings, the important happenings are usually important enough so that one can also read coverage from major newspapers, or from competing wire services, or from foreign news outlets, or from high-profile bloggers.

As a result, nobody actually needs the AP to do what they're doing; AP copy just happens to be awfully convenient. But it wouldn't be all that inconvenient to go elsewhere. Why, it could take as long as fifteen or thirty seconds for a competent blogger to do some searching and find a story -- usually more in-depth, I might add -- from a local AP member paper; a local AP member paper, I might add, that isn't going to complain when bloggers send traffic its way. Most bloggers just quote a little from stories; say two or three paragraphs. If their visitors are really interested in a story, they'll click through the provided link and read more. This, in business terms, is known as a "win-win." This, in business terms, is known as "free advertising."

Yet the AP apparently doesn't see it this way. They're entitled to their position -- but if you ask me, they're setting themselves up for something like this:

"Xai Jian, best customer!" Indeed!

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at June 18, 2008 12:49 AM | TrackBack
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