Friday, August 28, 2009

The AP vs. the AP

The Associated Press, like many old media outlets, is struggling to adapt to the Internet and a world where the public appears increasingly unwilling to pay for news content in general, much less bland and unremarkable wire reports. Like the recording industry, however, the AP's approach to this development has not been to reassess its business model, but to threaten legal action against those nefarious news aggregators like Google who send traffic to the AP without first paying them for the privilege.

Just this month, AP's general counsel, Srinandan Kasi, claimed that the news organization has no problem with people coming up with innovative ways of distributing its content -- so long as the AP pockets any money the innovator makes. “If this becomes a runaway success, I want to be part of this kind of business arrangement with you," Kasi said, addressing a hypothetical iPhone developer. "In the meantime, if you want to experiment, go at it.” That is, you do the hard work of figuring out how the AP can make more money from distributing its content electronically and, if you're successful, the AP will reward you by using the long arm of the state to confiscate whatever money you make, entering into a coerced “business arrangement” akin to the type of partnership the mafia might enter. If you fail? You're on your own, bud.

But AP's hubris regarding its “intellectual property” doesn't end there. If the copyright disclaimer at the end of many of its stories is to be believed, the wire service also claims that none of its material may "be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed" without prior consent. Since many of its stories merely restate facts one can find elsewhere, AP's claim that one cannot rewrite their material has provoked an understandable mix of ridicule and outrage. Given the company's own method of news gathering, it's also rather hypocritical.

Consider this AP account of the story this week of the head of an anti-animal cruelty organization in Virginia accidentally leaving her dog locked in a hot car, causing it to die. At the bottom of the 150-word article is this line: Information from: Richmond Times-Dispatch,

If you go to the Times-Dispatch website it's clear the AP based its entire story on this article, "Dog of Richmond SPCA CEO dies after being left in car for 4 hours". While I have no problem with this – no one should be able to claim ownership over information and the AP did credit the Richmond paper – this is just the sort of activity to which those running the company and other major news organizations have so vociferously objected. Remember: the AP's piece contained no actual new reporting and merely leeched off the work of others. If anything, the AP merely acted as an aggregator of information, taking a news item from an obscure publication and dispersing it to a wider audience.

There is nothing wrong with what the AP did, of course. It allowed a broader audience to discover a news story they probably otherwise would have missed (even if it wasn't the most newsworthy), and it undoubtedly drove some traffic to the Times-Dispatch's website. Since AP journalists see the benefit of building on -- and sometimes just taking -- information reported by others without any apparent prior consent, perhaps they should explain their reasons for doing so with those running the company. Rather than using the state to enforce their revenue stream by threatening lawsuits over a legal fiction -- "intellectual property" -- maybe they can begin to shift their focus to building a business model appropriate for the 21st century.

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