AP Throws Down Gauntlet to Online News Aggregators

Is the Associated Press trying to shoehorn a 21st-century technology into a 20th-century business model? Or is it merely trying to protect content that allows Google and others to rake in money while it is left holding the lost-revenue bag?

The answers to those questions may end up coming from a courtroom, as the AP announced Monday it would pursue legal and legislative action against online aggregators and portals that use its content in an unlicensed manner.

The 163-year-old news service also said it will try to use technology as a weapon by coming up with a way to track illegal uses of its content online while developing new search pages to take users to the “latest, most authoritative” sources of breaking news.

“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,” AP Chairman Dean Singleton told those attending its annual meeting in San Diego.

Aggravating the Aggregators

Google, Yahoo, the Drudge Report, the Huffington Post and other Web sites that might link to AP content were never mentioned in Singleton’s speech, but observers say its clear that the news company’s moves are shots across the bow at what it sees as an illegal application of fair-use linkage as outlined by the U.S. Copyright Act.

Google did respond with a Tuesday posting on its Public Policy Blog, asserting that it has a license for using AP content and helps cash-strapped newspapers make money.

“We drive traffic and provide advertising in support of all business models — whether news sources choose to host their articles with us or on their own sites, and whether their business model is ad-supported or based on subscriptions,” wrote associate general counsel Alexander Macgillivray. “In all cases, for news articles we’ve crawled and indexed but do not host, we show users just enough to make them want to read more — the headline, a ‘snippet’ of a line or two of text and a link back to to the news publisher’s Web site.”

However, not all aggregators are doing that, and not all users are clicking through to the original news Web site, says Kim Gregson, professor at the Park School of Communication at Ithaca College.

“If you’re a newspaper or TV station, Google traffic is not really good traffic, because people come to one page and then they leave,” Gregson told the E-Commerce Times. “They don’t typically browse around; they’re interested in that story and then they leave, and you don’t get ad revenues from those people.”

There are other motivating factors behind the AP digging in its heels, Gregson said. More and more of its members are considering canceling their AP contracts because of the economy and past dissatisfaction with company services.

However, “I think it’s a good thing for the business, and it makes sense for them to support it,” Gregson commented. “We all know we want to keep journalism going. Newspapers are history, but we need journalism to make money from its content — but it’s going to make [the AP] look like the bad guy.”

Last Stand for a Business Model?

“This is a business model battle,” University of Washington law professor Kate O’Neill told the E-Commerce Times. “The newspapers are dying, the print media is dying for ad revenue, and Google and company have got it. It’s a fight that was bound to happen.”

The real motive behind the AP’s tough talk is to spark a more productive, quieter conversation about updating that business model for the digital age, according to O’Neill. “It seems to be, in an ideal world, you wouldn’t run this through the courts. Google needs content, and newspapers need revenues to support news organizations. You would think the smart business people would make a deal here instead of burning up a zillion dollars in legal costs.”

However, if the issue does end up in court, the AP can’t go after the aggregation model too aggressively, O’Neill said, because some of its own member newspapers may be engaging in similar tactics on a smaller scale. Also, Google may be subject to some of the same legal arguments that music and movie studios used in their successful fight against file-sharing site Grokster.

“If your whole business model is predicated on getting users to violate someone else’s business model, that’s a bridge too far,” she said.

On the subject of longstanding business models: “A lot of them protect a business model that the customers don’t want. As sympathetic as I am — I’m actually one of those who prefers the old print newspaper, and I just lost my P-I (Seattle Post-Intelligencer) — if you can’t sell your product through a print medium anymore, I don’t see why the law is going to protect that any more than it protected the Edsel.

“On the other hand, Google is up the creek without a paddle if it’s got a portal and doesn’t have content,” she added.

The end result, speculated O’Neill, is that Google could actually help the AP in coming up with a technology for better tracking content and use that vital demographic information to lure advertisers.

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