The Associated Press board of directors has announced that it will launch an industry initiative to protect news content "from misappropriation online," developing a system to tag and track content distributed online to determine if it is being legally used. At the AP's annual meeting in San Diego on Monday, Chairman Dean Singleton said that the organisation would work with portals and other partners who properly license content, and pursue legal and legislative actions against those who do not.
"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories," Singleton asserted. AP President Tom Curley said that the initiative will also include developing new search pages that point users to the latest and most authoritative sources of breaking news.
The announcement is a clear attempt to tackle a problem which the industry has been facing for some years: that of competition from search engines and aggregators such as Google, which index newspaper and wire content and reprint extracts, and hence reduce the amount of time that people spend directly on news websites. Google recently took the controversial step of introducing advertising along search results on the US version of its Google news site, which had previously been entirely ad-free. Although agencies such as the Associated Press have come to agreements with Google whereby the search engine licenses and hosts their content, AP content reproduced in newspapers is still affected. Google argues that its relationship with publishers is mutually beneficial as it sends considerable traffic to newspaper websites, and that it is in full compliance with copyright laws.
Google has recently come under attack from various sources such as News Corp leader Rupert Murdoch who asked, "Should we be allowing Google to steal all our copyrights?" and Wall Street Journal editor Robert Thomson who described aggregators as "parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet." Thomson does not believe that news content should be free, and claimed that Google's tactics were "inimical to traditional brand loyalty" and mean that "a significant proportion of their users don't necessarily associate that content with the creator." He compared such aggregators to the Dow Jones' Factiva service which pays licence fees to content providers and which is therefore an "entirely different and certainly proper" model.
In the UK, the Guardian Media Group responded to the Digital Britain report by pointing to "the negative effects of aggregators and search engines on the ability and incentives for UK content providers to invest in quality content". Observer writer Henry Porter condemned Google as an "amoral menace" that creates nothing and makes vast advertising revenue "on the back of the labour of others." He compares Google to an "executioner" which has newspapers "held captive," and is hence menacing "the delicate instruments of democratic scrutiny."
Porter's language may be somewhat byzantine, but his point is clear and echoes that of many others: Google needs to be "taught about the responsibilities it owes to content providers and copyright holders." Will the AP's project succeed in doing this?