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Is AP Run By Idiots?

Last Updated Jul 24, 2009 9:58 AM EDT

Sometimes you see a business move so stupid, so clearly self-damaging that you have to wonder whether someone inside the corporation is trying to torpedo it. And that's exactly what is happening at the Associated Press, as it gears up to wage war on every single web site and person that dares use any of its content. The only problems with what and how it is doing so are that it will quickly alienate everyone it needs to work with, find that it's in direct opposition to U.S. law and custom, and probably see just how easily activists on the web could tie it into knots.

The actual declaration of war is a registry that will supposedly allow the organization to track all use of everything it creates, giving it the information it thinks it needs to twist arms:
The registry will employ a microformat for news developed by AP and which was endorsed two weeks ago by the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit research and development organization that has called on news organizations to adopt consistent news formats for online content. The microformat will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational "wrapper" that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.
A bit thick, but according to news reports like the one in the New York Times, the meaning is far simpler:
Tom Curley, The A.P.'s president and chief executive, said the company's position was that even minimal use of a news article online required a licensing agreement with the news organization that produced it. In an interview, he specifically cited references that include a headline and a link to an article, a standard practice of search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, news aggregators and blogs.

Asked if that stance went further than The A.P. had gone before, he said, "That's right." The company envisions a campaign that goes far beyond The A.P., a nonprofit corporation. It wants the 1,400 American newspapers that own the company to join the effort and use its software.

"If someone can build multibillion-dollar businesses out of keywords, we can build multihundred-million businesses out of headlines, and we're going to do that," Mr. Curley said. The goal, he said, was not to have less use of the news articles, but to be paid for any use.
To use a technical term, this is asinine. I'm certainly not someone on the "all information wants to be free all the time" bandwagon. I make my living as a writer, editor, and photographer, and realize that everyone creating content needs an income. But you don't build a business by threatening people, particularly when you're going beyond what reason dictates and entering into prohibitions that are very possibly illegal:
  • On the purely technical front, these people are fools. They want to include a wrapper? That's nice. And I'm sure no side or individual who was not already licensed and paying money to the organization would even consider stripping out the link and headline and leaving the wrapper behind.
  • Next, are they seriously saying that they could, let alone would, insist that someone copying a headline and adding a link to a flipping AP story would be in some sort of violation, particularly if the person had not signed a licensing agreement and posted under the aegis of copyright law's provision for fair use? Are they high? What is being piped through the ventilation system at 450 W. 33rd St. in Manhattan? I hate to bring it up, but titles do not enjoy copyright protection, and I'd argue -- and would hope that every blogger on the web would do the same -- that a headline is nothing more than the public title of an article. And the right to link to content is pretty well established, at least in U.S. courts. So what is the possible legal rationale? It has to that AP thinks it can bully people into compliance. That brings us to the next point.
  • The AP has lots of money compared to individual bloggers, with the exception of people like Mark Cuban. It can certainly spend the resources to track down every ... I won't say use of, if we're talking about a link and headline, but simply reference to its stories. Perhaps the wrapper is essentially built into the links, like an automatic trackback, and they can find people that way. Or maybe they're creating digital signatures of their headlines and will be looking on the web for matching content. So now they can send a cease-and-desist letter or maybe an invoice to each and every person daring to mention an AP story. What happens when thousands and thousands of sites start doing this just to register their protest? Even cease and desist letters cost something, and if you want to take someone to federal court, because there's where copyright action happens, it starts costing thousands. Now we're talking expenses into at least seven figures if not more.
Not only is the proposed protection probably unworkable, expensive, and ultimately futile after the Electronic Frontier Foundation, ACLU, and heaven knows how many other organizations with funding and lawyers get involved, but it also is already becoming a public relations nightmare. Might as well post people in front of newsstands, screaming "You can't look at that if you don't buy it!" at people browsing through material.

No wonder the AP and its philosophical kin are doomed. They are collectively dumb and doornails, and this is so fundamentally stupid on so many levels as to become an apt subject for parody and ridicule. I think it would make sense for bloggers right now to start posting AP headlines and links along with a small amount of discussion on each, to keep it all within fair use, after all. As the AP would learn, you might take a swatter to a single bee, but it's not going to help when you kick the hive and the whole swarm comes spilling out.

Image via Flickr user, CC 2.0.
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    Erik Sherman is a widely published writer and editor who also does select ghosting and corporate work. The views expressed in this column belong to Sherman and do not represent the views of CBS Interactive. Follow him on Twitter at @ErikSherman or on Facebook.