Boycott the AP? A short-sighted idea

Short-sighted bloggers are calling for a boycott of the Associated Press because it deigned to define for bloggers with an overly heavy hand clear standards as to how much of its content they can excerpt without infringing on the AP’s copyright.

Such boycott talk misunderstands the AP and its journalistic breadth if not depth, and amounts, frankly, to pure hissyfits ’cause some bloggers can’t have their way.

How, exactly, does one boycott the almost omnipresent AP? And what would replace it? Reuters? Hardly.

Many of AP’s critics do not understand what the AP is: a non-profit cooperative. It is owned by its 1,500 member newspapers and has historically been credited with the emergence of “objective” journalism after the Civil War (or the disappearance of “subjective” journalism, depending on your POV).

Is the AP the “best” newsgathering and disseminating organization in the world? Could be, depending on how “best” is defined. It’s certainly among the most broad-based. After the budget cuts of the ‘80s killed the newsgathering reputations of the network news shows, particularly CBS, AP drove competitor United Press International into virtual extinction.

From the late ‘90s to now, revenue declines in the newspaper business drove it to ax most overseas bureaus, leaving the AP as the journalistic big kahuna worldwide. If broadest is best, AP wins, with (it claims) more than 240 bureaus worldwide. The AP serves 550 international broadcasters who receive AP’s global video news and other services. The AP serves thousands of newspapers in 121 countries.

On quality, the AP — as a worldwide newsgathering cooperative — has won 49 Pulitzers. (Yes, definitions of quality are subjective.)

Reuters, another large newsgathering and disseminating company, is decidedly not non-profit. Prior to its sale to Thomson for $17 billion last year, Reuters employed about 16,000 in 94 countries. But its strength has primarily been financial news. That’s why Thomson bought it — to compete directly with Bloomberg News on an equal footing.

The AP has a much greater presence in the United States for general news than Reuters. Newspapers, which have been cutting staffs and therefore local news holes, have enlarged the use of AP copy and photos. It’s simply cheaper than producing locally generated stories. Reuters, with a lesser American presence, has not capitalized on that and is unlikely to. Because …

The context provided by The New York Times for Reuters’ sale is telling:

The deal also comes in the middle of an information revolution as easy distribution over the Internet has turned news and data into a commodity. Media companies, including newspapers, cable companies and financial publishers, are all struggling to turn their content into new services that their customers are willing to pay for. [emphasis added]

Any argument for boycotting the AP and favoring Reuters is short-sighted. Thomson’s interest in Reuters is in its financial-reporting strength. The Times reports that Thomson considers Reuters’ general news service for newspapers, broadcasters and Web publishers to be baggage, not buoyancy. Look for Reuters’ role in general news to diminish slowly over time. Nature abhors a vacuum. The AP is the only news organization with the international resources to fill it.

Now, the AP is not without its own measure of stupidity in unleashing its legions of lawyers on the Drudge Retort, demanding it yank a few items containing quotes from AP stories ranging from 39 to 79 words. The AP has fired the first shot in a war that’s going to last (at least online) for a very long time, and it’s going to sully the AP’s image more than it can imagine. It’s also going to be expensive for both sides when lawyers really get involved. And the AP ought to realize that links from blogs to AP content benefits the AP by giving its content exposure to a wider audience.

Let the lawyers proffer advice on what to do here and parse what is or is not a copyright and what is or is not fair use. This flap is decidedly about money. The AP is run by a board of directors headed by … William Dean Singleton (gasp!), vice chairman and CEO of Media News General in Denver, Colo. This legal frontal assault on bloggers’ use of AP copy smells like his handiwork:

In 1995 he shuttered the Houston Post, throwing well over a thousand people out of work and killing a publication that had served the community since 1885. Nor is Singleton known for graceful entrances. When he purchased The Berkshire Eagle in 1995, reporters were given a sheet of paper describing their job status and new salaries. “People were expected to read the paper and put their initials next to the words ‘accept’ or ‘reject’ on the spot,” Stephen Simurda wrote in CJR. “There were virtually no negotiations. This was day one of the Singleton era.”

Mr. Singleton, who is single-minded about profit, understands a critical fact. From The Times story of Reuters’ sale:

In the information age, content may be king. But the real power lies in what you can do with it.

Loss of control equals loss of revenue, thinks the AP. That’s why the AP doesn’t like what bloggers do with its content. Bloggers have grown up lazy: Of the 100-plus million blogs tracked by Technorati, how many actually do their own reporting? The AP reports; the vast majority of blogs rip ‘n’ read and then rant. (And ripping AP at length and then ranting doesn’t always produce readable copy. Paraphrasing is a lost art online.)

Without stories from the AP — or Reuters or The New York Times or the Asahi Shimbun or the tiny Podunk Times — bloggers would have far fewer facts on which to opine. The AP is a principal information feeder of the Vast Blog Opinion Machine.

When a critical mass of bloggers raises the money and develops its own, independent, broadly based, worldwide newsgathering and disseminating cooperative, you can bet your bottom dollar it will be the first to howl “copyright infringement!” when someone posts one of the blogger co-op’s stories.

In the meantime, bloggers ought to treat information provided by others, especially professional news organizations that spent money developing it, with far more respect by at minimum crediting the source, linking to the original story and minimizing direct lifted copy. I don’t know the legalities of all this, but I know a lack of common courtesy when I see it.

The best advice for the AP and bloggers alike I’ve seen so far has come from the very sharp mind of a friend:

The AP ought to tell blogs that it welcomes minimal use of excerpts if accompanied by links to the AP or to the news organization buying the AP story. The AP should tell bloggers, and bloggers ought to understand, that except in fair-use cases of criticism, parody, and the like, the AP cannot allow blogs to use significant excerpts or entire stories for free that other news organizations have paid for.

Bloggers should have known that this day would come. The AP’s poorly executed crackdown, soon to be followed by other equally mercenary news organizations, reflects the enormous economic dislocations in the news business worldwide. Did bloggers believe they’d be exempt from it?

Blogging’s chance to improve its amateur standing is at hand. Either pony up to repair blogging’s wretched reputation for uneven writing and its widespread lack of original reporting — or back off on threats to boycott the AP.

23 replies »

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  2. Singleton may have been wanting to do this for a while… I reckon new board member Rupert Murdoch sat down with him and described the rush of acting with brass balls.

  3. Right on, right on, right on!

    Nice piece, Doc. And I learned much, like the fact that the AP is nonprofit and is owned by its members.

    What most of us bloggers do is merely commentary, and it can be very important at times. And the blogs’ ability to amplify certain news stories that deserve it, and that have been overlooked by the MSM, is also very important, I think. But the real news is still almost entirely generated by people who do it for a living.

    Thanks to all of them.

  4. JS, I find it sad that newspapers will run anonymous, poorly written crap ripped off the comment sections of their Web sites and call it “the people’s voice.”

    Yet good analytical work, such as we do here, gets ignored for op-ed page inclusion.

  5. Good read, Dr. D. As a blogger who’s occasionally (ok, more than occasionally) done the rip, read, and rant thing after insufficient paraphrasing, I’m certainly guilty of what the AP’s annoyed over.

    Got a question, though – you mentioned Reuters and UPI, but there are other sources that run nationally and/or internationally as well – AFP, BBC, NPR. Do you consider them more in the NYTimes vein (single outlet with the financial clout to run international operations) or the AP vein?

  6. Brian, if the argument’s about being ubiquitous, I’d say the AP wins. It’s the epitome of the professional generalist. (Note that I failed to tell readers that 30 of the AP’s Pulitzers were for photography, not reporting and writing.)

    The others slice out a part of the AP’s pie and probably do more in depth. I no longer think the NYT’s motto fits. It’s ruled these days by the same revenue straitjacket other newspaper companies are. And it does not enjoy government support.

    You want news? The AP will bring it to you. But the AP will not always provide you context and analysis. The others will … and so will talented bloggers.

  7. Puheeze. AP’s intimidation tactics might work in some places that don’t actually have copyright and fair use legal precedents, but not in the US. Read their terms of use and tell me these folks get any facet of the internet, distributed information sources or mass appeal. at $2.50 a word for use, they are ridiculous.
    Dr Denny, you need to sit down with your own motto before defending a monolithic dying institution. They are trying to become the RIAA of the print world, while failing to understand the new media in the least.

    As far as being fair and reasonable? Not likely.

    Boycott the AP? not likely, they are such easy targets. But a good troll if that was what was intended.

  8. vladimir:

    Can you explain to me exactly how fair use precedents allow blogs to take large chunks of AP stories and publish them? I’m not a copyright attorney, but I do own a business that runs up against copyright law all the time, and I’ve had to research the law a great deal to keep from running afoul of it.

    You seem to know some things about the law that I don’t know, and I’d appreciate your insights into why what the AP is objecting to would qualify for fair use provisions.

  9. Thanks, Dr. D. Thanks to you, S&R readers are now among the few to understand this issue.

  10. In the beginning when I started my blog, I was super paranoid about infringements, copy rights etc.. whenever I take anything anywhere, I usually (if I have ‘momnesia’ I might forget at times don’t shoot me) link to the source as a common courtesy. Plus, the point is not to lift a whole article, but only excerpts to make a point. I think it is reasonable for AP to be vigilant about it’s materials as they work for a living. A blog is merely self indulgent ‘here am I with my opinions’-piece that on the whole, you’re lucky if more than 10 people read it that day.. (yes yes I know, speak for yourself.. well.. I AM! lol)

    (and now they talk about momnesia? long do you think women knew about that one? I know.. totally off-topic)

  11. AP objective? Puleeeaaase. Just do a search of AP’s Nedra Pickler’s articles (she’s married to a Fox News exec by the way).

    from wikipedia:
    Her reporting was largely responsible for feeding the controversy surrounding Obama advisor Austan Goolsbee’s meeting with the Canadian consulate [16], as she broke the story on a memo suggesting that Goolsbee had reassured the Canadian government that Barack Obama’s stance on NAFTA was “more about political positioning than a clear articulation of policy plans”.

    On 18 April 2008, she produced a story on the Democratic candidates in which the first sentence was: “Democratic presidential rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama are complaining about which candidate is the biggest complainer.”[17]

    On June 1, 2008, she produced a story on the Democratic convention in which the first sentence was: “The fate of nearly 2.3 million Democratic presidential primary votes belongs to 30 party activists.” [18]. The Democratic Convention Rules & Bylaws Committee is made up of members of the National Democratic Committee.

  12. For clarification, look at 37 CFR (Code of Federal Regulations) Section 202.1–Copyight is not extended to any group of words. Only substantially large works, clearly “original” as a whole, are eligible for copyright. Their “parts” are not copyright protected. Only the whole. So most of AP’s material is not eligible for Copyright. They can claim it is copyrighted, but they could never support it in court. A copyright is only a “license to sue”. It does not prdicate “winning” the suit. AP is ignoring that mundane fact seriously in order to make a buck. Nothing new here. Please move on.

  13. The reality is that by far the vast majority of bloggers could never afford to pay any amount the AP was asking for. Anyway, the majority of those reading blogs would never seek out AP material in conventional, mainstream news outlets.

    Essentially, the AP is wasting its time delving into a medium it obviously doesn’t understand.

    By the way, did you pay a fee to display that AP logo? And that excerpt from CJR seems like a awful big number of words to be quoting without making a payment.

    See how ridiculous this can get, hmmm?

  14. Ron:

    Sorry, but I believe you are in error. Copyright law is very complex because it depends on case law, for the most part. I’ve researched it as thoroughly as I know how, and I’m still confused, primarily because it requires balancing four factors with sub parts to each factor.

    One thing that seems clear to me, though (and I’m willing to be convinced otherwise if you have evidence to the contrary) is that copyright law most definitely protects practically any intellectual product except for certain exceptions, most notably “fair use.”

  15. Having worked in print media for years, I can tell you that “fair use” often is one big gray area. I have encountered publishers who wanted a permissions fee for use of one sentence from a magazine or newspaper article to be republished in print.

    But on the web, if the brief excerpt is fully attributed and linked back to the original article, this is both driving traffic directly to the original article and also making the article more visible to search engines, which is a benefit to the publisher if its ad revenues depend on traffic.

    I sometimes find entire blog posts of mine pasted on other blogs, and this annoys the hell out of me even if it’s linked. If the entire article is there, why would anyone feel a need to click on the link back to me? But that’s not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about brief excerpts. Now the AP wants to charge bloggers for use of as few as five words. That’s insane.

    I write for the New York Times Company’s site, which is a big commercial site, and I can tell you we live and die by traffic. Search engine optimization and traffic driving is the be-all and end-all of that business. If someone excerpts some of my writing with a link, this drives traffic back to my work on and also helps move my writing up to the top of google searches, driving more traffic. Ultimately this makes more money and it makes me more money, which makes me happy.

    The New York Times encourages us to sniff out people re-publishing entire articles, and the NYT lawyers will issue takedown orders if such an article is found. But excerpts with links? We like people to publish excerpts with links.

    There is indeed a crisis in news reporting now, because newspapers are losing revenue and cutting back on reporters and news bureaus. News gathering costs money, and bloggers do make free use of the work done by news-gatherers.

    However, the issue ultimately is one of business models. The old print media business models don’t apply to the Web. How will news gatherers and media make profits in the future? The way things are falling out now suggests traffic and SEO are huge assets that web sites must cultivate to survive.

    The AP is nuts.

  16. Thanks Barbara. That’s been my take, too. If the AP wants to charge for just a few words, theyr’e insane. But I still believe they are on firm legal ground when it comes to others’ publishing large amounts of copy, entire articles, and/or the most important part of the article.

  17. Sorry, had to do a quick google search of the copyright office’s guidelines on fair use.
    I quote directly from their web page.

    “The distinction between “fair use” and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.

    The 1961 Report of the Register of Copyrights on the General Revision of the U.S. Copyright Law cites examples of activities that courts have regarded as fair use: “quotation of excerpts in a review or criticism for purposes of illustration or comment; quotation of short passages in a scholarly or technical work, for illustration or clarification of the author’s observations; use in a parody of some of the content of the work parodied; summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report; reproduction by a library of a portion of a work to replace part of a damaged copy; reproduction by a teacher or student of a small part of a work to illustrate a lesson; reproduction of a work in legislative or judicial proceedings or reports; incidental and fortuitous reproduction, in a newsreel or broadcast, of a work located in the scene of an event being reported.”

    I would submit that almost anything quoted in a blog could, does, or may be argued to, fit into these guidelines.

    As a former publisher, whose income derived from the sale of words on paper, paid for by customers, I really do understand what they AP is trying to do and why the AP would like all of us in the blogging world to give them money. However, they are not allowed, subject to legislation to pursue avenues to get it other than the ones permitted by the law. They simply want to scare all of us out here on the internet into giving them money while they try to adjust to new realities of economics in the information game. In the software world that is called the RIAA and the Daryl McBride tactic of presumption.

    Nope, not gonna happen, and they will find out that poking the people that help them disseminate their information is a bad idea in the long run.

    On the subject of reductio ad absurdum, check out this tongue in cheek comment here,
    No, not affiliated with them, just found it highly amusing.

  18. Thanks to all for your contributions, particularly Vlad. You all gave the issue a good airing, and I appreciate it.

  19. vlad:

    I believe you’re in error. I’m extremely familiar with the passage you quote. The only part of that passage that applies in this case, I believe, is “summary of an address or article, with brief quotations, in a news report.” The case law I’ve seen seems to pretty much come down on the side of the “news” when media outlets are reporting on the address, article, or quotations themselves. I think that’s an important distinction.

    For instance, if one is reporting on a speech given by a CEO of a major corporation, one must quote parts of that speech to make the reporting coherent. This does not mean that one can take someone else’s report on the same speech and substitute it for one’s own report.

    See the difference?

    Hey, I think copyright law has, in many instances, gone way too far, driven by the Disney lobby. But think about it this way. If, say, the Bugtussle Herald is not a member of AP and has made no contribution to AP, but then publishes an AP story on its front page, would that not be copyright infringement? If a blog does the same, is that not copyright infringement?

    As for the AP’s assertion that blogs or anyone else must pay for five words, regardless of the situation (such as parody, critique, or other areas falling under fair use), that’s simply absurd and, IMO, incompetent on their part.

  20. From an article in the NYTimes:
    “Last week, The AP took an unusually strict position against quotation of its work, sending a letter to the Drudge Retort asking it to remove seven items that contained quotations from AP articles ranging from 39 to 79 words.”

    Drudge Retort was NOT pasting whole articles, like other blogs he was posting excerpts.

    The AP issued takedown notices based on the DMCA, not general copyright law. Even the awful DMCA has a ‘fair use’ clause. The AP’s actions are far beyond the scope of the DMCA, AP is making unreasonable demands unsupported by the law.

    The AP is wrong, no matter how cool it is that it’s a worker’s collective whose ED is a right-wing extremist.

    The AP is WRONG! Their demands have NO basis in law (just like the RIAA says that making a CD of music bought online is illegal – it isn’t under US law).

    Kos has the right response – follow the law to the letter and AP can bite it. Notice AP has only gone after small liberal blogs, not large blogs that have money and certainly NOT conservative blogs. Because AP KNOWS it’s wrong (just like Monsanto went after a small dairy in Maine for daring to say their milk was RGBH free and left the ones that could afford to defend themselves alone).

    AP is just another huge right-wing multinational that wants to make up their own rules despite what the law actually says, and then bully small liberal blogs into submission creating their own precedent. Oh, and AP routinely infringes copyright of their own writers, so just what leg do the hypocrites that run AP stand on?