The Associated Press, a widely recognized prize winning news organization, has decided that it is not going to take it anymore. They are looking to control their content by adding a “digital wrapper” to stories so as to ensure that they are being read through licensed sources. This is intended to thwart unauthorized search engines and aggregators who derive profit through ads placed next to links to AP stories. Also, it will allow them to determine what is being read on individual computers and what sites people are gaining access to them. Furthermore, they want news sites that use their content to run the same software as part of a “digital permissions framework” that would inform the publisher of their permission obligations with individual stories.
I can’t even begin to describe all of the major problems and issues of this move (announced earlier this year but beginning to be implemented now). I think the right metaphor sounds something like this: after they realizing they had closed the barn door sans horses, the AP is going to where the horses are and attempting to build a new barn around their current position. Their next announcement has to be the invention of time travel which will allow them to go back to the point in time where internet practices and customs were being formed, insert their business model, and destroy this future free internet content timeline.
All kidding aside, there are some immediate concerns. First, while they have given assurances that no private information will be gathered, how can this be guaranteed? There is no denying the fact that a little piece of digital code is reporting information about a reader back to a centralized information center. (I’m sure that privacy advocates will have a field day with that one.) Second, what amount of web traffic constitutes the need for a site to obtain a license? While they have indicated that they are not interested in going after bloggers, their actions in the past have indicated otherwise. (And their announcement that even “minimal use” would require a license is not very convincing.) Third, what about web tagging sites like Delicious and Diigo? Does the sharing of links through these third party sites constitutes a need for licensing (for me or for the site)? Could aggregations of AP stories through these sites be considered a trigger condition for licensing? Fourth, what exactly does this mean for search engines? While the major players in the search engine field have licenses with the AP, how will their content control affect the results of a search? (On a related note, if I was an AP shareholder, I would be asking how this would not drive news content consumers to use other wire services such as the CNN, the BBC, and Reuters?)
The big looming issue here is that of copyright and fair use. As a librarian, I really can’t see how the AP is going to do an end run around fair use. Titles are not copyright protected and the use of a fraction of the total words of an article does not create a copyright breach. While I can appreciate and understand their desire to protect what they have created, it is not the way to do it in this business and computer culture environment. (I couldn’t even find one article that applauded this move for this post.)
We live in a connection culture where information and ideas are passed from person to person through links. And the more links you have to something, the more likely it is to be seen by others. Taking away those links is lowering the chances of your content being seen and passed to others. When companies are making billions of dollars through linking, why would you restrict or confiscate the very things that drive traffic and revenue? It makes no sense in light of other free content examples. (e.g. New York Times.) It’ll be interesting to see how it does play out, but I have a feeling I know how this one ends.
This is not the last call for the end of free content on the Internet. But it should be the last call for companies to stop trying to apply 20th century solutions to 21st century issues.