Tuesday, June 17, 2008

AP Challenges Weblogs on Use of Content. Is the AP Brand at Stake?

I've tried to remain low-key about the Associated Press action against the Drudge Retort, a parody of the famous Drudge Report political Web site, but given the furor out there I think that a post on the topic is worthwhile. The AP has raised "takedown requests" claiming violations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) and other laws in unlicensed use of its content in seven of the Drudge Retort's blog post. Not only is the Drudge Retort being challenged on its own use of AP's content but as well for people in comments sections that quote paragraphs from AP content. The Drudge Retort's Rogers Cadenhead commented on the takedown letter on his own weblog and provided a summary of each of the takedown requests, citing the examples.

Similar to the lawsuit raised by AP against Moreover for their use of AP headlines and ledes to provide links to AP content the concern of AP seems to center on the use of headlines and ledes as copyrighted content. Unlike the AP/Moreover suit, though, this takedown letter focuses on only seven items rather than a bulk use of AP headlines and ledes. And unlike the AP/Moreover suit, some of the headlines on the Drudge Retort site were not AP headlines but headlines rewritten by the site's staff. Also notable was that the sections of text from AP stories were quite small. In all of the sections posted by the Drudge Retort itself they were either just a lede sentence or a lede plus a quote from someone at a public event.

The Drudge Report appears to have complied with the takedown order and AP's Jim Kennedy promises guidelines for bloggers using AP content, but awareness of it spread quickly through social bookmarking services and weblogs and has ignited a widespread reaction from major bloggers and mainstream commentators. TechCrunch's Michael Arrington offered one of the stronger statements, claiming that his prominent weblog would no longer reference AP content. Others were more inflamed in their rhetoric, including this gem from Matthew Ingram:
I don’t want to be accused of succumbing to Godwin’s Law, but I would argue that a dialogue with the AP has about as much chance of being “constructive” as Chamberlain’s discussions with Hitler over the fate of eastern Europe.
The New York Times' Saul Hansell tries to steer a calm course through the AP challenge in their Bits blog but in the era of sub-millisecond delays of information transition used to power most large-scale trading of financial securities his citation of the century-old "Hot News" New York statute is shaky at best. If someone is linking to a story that's already minutes, hours or days old on the Web, much less in investment banks, how "hot" can that news be? And since to get the story in full one must still go to the licensed source, the licensed source is going to benefit financially from more public awareness of their having a story available.

The clear benefit of inbound links and short, fair use-style citations can be seen in the impact that social bookmarking has had on AP licensors. Looking at the data at right from Compete.com, news Web sites that are major licensors of AP content do not appear to have been harmed by the growth of social bookmarking sites such as Digg, which provide similar small snippets of content and headlines from AP and other sources. In fact, one could argue by such a trend that much of the growth at news sites in recent years has been due to the attention that weblogs and social bookmarking sites have paid to their content. Social media is the news world's best friend at this point, providing an editorial capability that curates high-value content from professional media organizations that would otherwise be ignored.

But the real point seems to be whether AP can gain financially from this exercise. Facing a dwindling number of mainstream media companies available to purchase its content AP its struggling to come up with a way to build a broader base of revenues in an environment in which their audience has become a far greater source of content curation than their traditional client base. Whatever the validity of AP's legal citations - they seem to be to be quite weak and awaiting only a decent lawyer in opposition to them to have them swept away - they are alienating the very marketplace that is driving growth for their existing licensors at a time when that marketplace needs AP content less than ever before. It is all too unfortunately like the RIAA-led lawsuits against consumers of online music, which have done little to change the fate of music publishers who have lacked a coherent marketing strategy to deal with the power of online music consumers to drive both tastes and sales.

As valuable as AP content may be, for most news stories that people will link to and comment upon online there are readily available substitutes from other wire services. AP's position as a service bureau complicates their ability to counter the power of proprietary wire services such as Reuters and Agence France-Presse, but clearly the problem is one of having only so many popularly-tracked newsworthy events to cover that will result in real "hot news" that others lack. In the meantime weblogs and other emerging publishing outlets are creating new sources of news and newsworthy opinions that could be syndicated by AP into their distribution network far more aggressively.

From a marketing perspective the real issue for AP, like the music business, seems to be far less about protecting an existing product line and far more about what needs to be done to rethink both the product line and the marketing rationale for the core product. Instead of resorting to lawsuits and takedown letters as a primary strategy to enforce the value of AP content on the Web, tactics that could create both legal confusion and a potential dilution of the value of the AP brand in the eyes of consumers, AP needs a "win-win" strategy that looks upon the drivers of economic value in online publishing more realistically - and that begins to incorporate new sources of content worth distributing to its worldwide subscribers and more valuable services.

A more refreshing approach to the opportunities available from social media is definitely in order. Simple example: instead of thinking about charging people for using AP headlines, why not PAY people for the click-throughs that they bring to subscriber content and charge higher rates to subscribers for the service? Hmm, maybe those bloggers are pretty good folks after all.
In the meantime, perhaps that nice linear relationship between social media growth and sites using AP content may not be looking so linear for a while.
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