Extra! Extra! AP and Newspapers In Losing Battle Against Web
Extra! Extra! AP and Newspapers In Losing Battle Against Web
Extra! Extra! AP and Newspapers In Losing Battle Against Web

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    Not content with trying to destroy the concept of fair use for images, in the case of artist Shepard Fairey's transformative poster of President Obama, the Associated Press (AP) is now threatening a war on the words of the Internet. Faced with a rebellion from its members (the AP is a cooperative of newspapers) about the costs to subscribe to the service, the AP management has now decided to try to track down every use of its material online.

    In its April 6 news release, AP said it would “launch an industry initiative to protect news content from misappropriation online. AP Chairman Dean Singleton said organization “would work with portals and other partners who properly license content – and would pursue legal and legislative actions against those who don‘t.” He was also quoted as saying: “We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.”

    In an interview with paidcontent.org, Singleton sounded as if he were channeling former AT&T Chairman Ed Whitacre, telling Staci Kramer: “We own the content. We can use it as we see fit because it's ours.” It was Whitacre who set off the huge Net Neutrality fight in 2006 by talking about how Google and others were not going to “use my pipes for free.” Whitacre was wrong then, and Singleton is wrong now.

    In a way, Singleton is the epitome of the modern media mogul. He’s built a huge newspaper empire on a mountain of debt, while maintaining a reputation as the slasher and burner of newsrooms. In that regard, he fits nicely into the current model of newspaper barons who over-leveraged themselves and are now scrambling to keep afloat after their dreams got ahead of their finances.

    As with other industries still trying to figure out how to cope with the Internet (see recording, movies, for example), Singleton and the AP joined the club and blamed the technology while disregarding the law. This isn’t, of course, the first time the newspaper industry found itself besieged, and reacted by striking out against the forces of change. In the 1920s and 1930s, some newspapers declined to run listings of radio programs without charge and kept radio stations from subscribing to news services, all tactics in a war to keep radio from growing. That went well.

    Just how clueless is the AP? According to this story, the AP sent a cease and desist order to a Tennessee radio station for posting on its Web site material from the AP's own YoutTube channel. That channel allows anyone to embed content. AP officials were quoted as saying they weren't familiar with the YouTube operation.

    There are scant details on how AP will track the alleged misuse. The best way would be to keep everything it produces off the Internet. But abstinence as a policy rarely works. So if one assumes some material will make it online, the question becomes whether it has a right to be there. The answer is, under certain conditions, yes it does. While Singleton may consider the concept of “fair use” to be a “misguided legal theory,” copyright law certainly doesn’t. And just as recording companies want to track down uses of their copyrighted material online, there’s no way any software can tell what is fair use whether in music or in text.

    Singleton wasn’t the only titan of the information industry to go after what he saw as unauthorized uses. News Corp. Chairman Rupert Murdoch, speaking April 2 at The Cable Show, asked whether Google should be able to “steal our copyrights.” His answer, not surprisingly, was no. “People reading news for free on the Web, that's got to change,” he told the annual exhibition of the cable industry.

    At least Murdoch is cognizant of the need for other distribution channels. He told the cable convention in Washington that News Corp. that he liked the Kindle and that News Corp. was investing in its own reader device. Of course, that would be proprietary, and no on the Web.

    As it turned out, the day after the AP announcement, Google CEO Eric Schmidt was the closing speaker at the Newspaper Association of America’s annual meeting. His view was in stark contrast to that of Murdoch and Singleton. In his 50 minutes on stage, for his speech and to answer questions, Schmidt didn’t use the word, “paper,” alone (as opposed to newspaper) once.

    In his view, the majority of circulation should be online, rather than in print. He chastised the industry for now being innovators, whether in technology of presenting news stories, or the character of a story or types of advertising to attract online audiences, in payment systems, or in realizing that readers can contribute through user-generated content.

    The questions were indicative of the protective, even defensive, mind-set of the newspaper audience. One questioner asked whether Google could tweak its algorithm so that news organizations with recognizable brands would come out on top. Schmidt said that Google does that within Google News searches, but not in general search.

    Years ago, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was trying to allocate what were called the N11 numbers, like 911 for emergencies or 311 for city government. Newspapers insisted they had to be given one of those numbers because they were the primary purveyor of information. They didn’t get one.

    Schmidt also defended the concept of fair use from questions that suggested that intellectual property rights were being eroded by the Web. There is a law, and that law has balance, Schmidt said. He also declined to blame consumers for only wanting to read a headline and paragraph of a story, as one of the questioners suggested. That’s a lot like radio news, Schmidt said.

    He was also unsure about AP’s objections to Google, because Google has a multimillion-dollar deal with AP not only to use its content, but to host it as well. Any news organization that doesn’t want its web site indexed by Google has a simple bit of code to keep the search bots out of its data base.

    The news business has a lot of problems, no doubt. Some are beyond its control, but some are self-inflicted. If the newspapers don’t want their material searched or indexed, they can simply not do deals with web sites or block search engines. Let’s see how well things work out. They can improve the online product to make it more attractive to advertisers. They can charge for some content at reasonable rates.

    Blaming the Internet isn’t going to make the newspaper industry’s situation any better. Blaming one of the only pro-consumer features in copyright law isn’t going to make it better, either. Recognizing reality and dealing with it will.