Monday, July 27, 2009

Smelling a Better Business Model, AP Deploys Its Own Open Content Tracking Microformat

AP has taken quite a bit of heat as of late from industry pundits because of its highly visible copyright enforcement efforts, but it has also been looking at ways in which it can leverage emerging technologies to do a better job at building a better business model. It's no secret to AP that there's more money to be made in sweet solutions rather than sour legal tactics, and also no secret that its traditional business model of licensing feeds of content to a handful of select distribution partners is a cumbersome way to develop new revenue streams in the Web era. But what is somewhat surprising is that AP has bypassed a number of technology companies courting them for their services to come up with their own solution to these issues.

In cooperation with the Media Standards Trust, AP is leveraging W3C-defined standards for coding XHTML Web pages with data microformats to launch a news registry service that will track the usage of AP content across the Web. The hNews microformat proposed by AP is an open standard that provides metadata such as source organization, dateline, principles behind its creation and, of course, rights definitions. The hNews format in and of itself is not an enforcement mechanism, but rather simply a series of data definitions that enable software to take actions based on that data. For example, the openDemocracy Web site is experimenting with hNews microformats, but one can easily cut and paste content into a blog or Web page without restriction.

What hNews enables in theory, though, is software that can reference hNews metadata to send information about how content is being used in relation to the rights expressed in that metadata to other points on the Web. AP claims in various postings and articles that it is leveraging hNews to drive a "beacon" program that will report back to AP how its content is being used. There are no readily available details on this beacon program, only vague statements describing how it would be used. Presumably it would operate somewhat like the Tracer technology from Tynt, which embeds a small piece of Javascript in a Web page that affects how content is copied and enables usage reporting back to a central service.

Although AP's registry is not like a digital rights management scheme that "locks up" content in an encoded digital wrapper that prevents viewing by unauthorized people, AP seems to be going out of its way to make statements which claim that it is a protecting technology for publishers. A widely circulated graphic from AP states that their registry provides a "protective format" which puts content in a box-like "container" that will enable content usage based on rights expressed through hNews. Without more express details about AP's beacon technology it's hard to make any real conclusions about these claims, but clearly the concept is to enable viewing while enforcing policies on content reuse through software that is activated via approved distributors of AP content.

Reactions to AP's initiative have been muted in many instances and downright hostile in other instances, including a sharply worded post by Jeff Jarvis which claims that AP needs to be replaced by a better way to manage news distribtion (which he hopes to help mastermind, of course). Ironically, Jarvis's scheme to compensate link referrers from ad revenues obtained by the owners of the original content is not so different in its ultimate goals from what AP is trying to accomplish: rewarding recognized third parties who are helping to increase the value of original content. While Jarvis is right in that there are few inherent market advantages today in AP's core business model that would prevent entrepreneurs from usurping its role in helping news organizations get more value from their content production, it will take more than "reverse syndication" - compensating people who provide links to content - to provide meaningful revenues to today's news organizations.

It is this financial gap between the "link economy" and traditional news feed licensing that AP is hoping to target with its initiative. AP hopes that people who have an opportunity to use content from organizations that use their registry will pay for a license to use that content on a commercial basis. In other words, links provide context for original copies of content, but AP wants to encourage licensed content to appear in as many contexts as possible where it can make money. A link to an original article in a general news Web site on making Christmas ornaments, for example, is not going to have the same value to advertisers as that same article in a microsite or special section focused on preparing for that holiday. The value of links on the Web is indisputable, but facilitating revenues from repurposed content in a more automated and exact fashion is at least as important for many original content producers. In an era in which reproducing and distributing content is largely trivial, being able to create valuable contexts for content is the market differentiator that drives content value.

While I have strong reservations about how effective AP's "beacon" technology will prove to be, it's only fair to acknowledge that AP is at least trying to grapple seriously with how to build a more effective infrastructure for licensing its content in an era in which content distribution is highly commoditized. AP also opens the door to enabling any number of publishers to do so as well - which could lead to an expansion of AP's role as a source of more efficient content licensing services. From this perspective, the AP registry initiative may enable AP to license its content more rapidly and efficiently to an ever-widening range of distribution partners that they will need as outlets for content from AP member news organizations hard-pressed to keep their operations afloat through their stand-alone Web sites. It's unfortunate that it is taking mainstream publishers so long to get these concepts underway (we've been talking about them for years), but at least AP is starting to pick up the scent of a viable new business model.
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