June 19, 2008

News bites news

The news service should promote its content to bloggers instead of trying to block them from using it

Los Angeles Times

The Associated Press recently pulled a Metallica online, and no, that's not a good thing. Metallica, one of the most popular heavy-metal bands of all time, has become a symbol for cluelessness about the Internet -- witness the episode two weeks go, when the band forced music bloggers to take down reviews of its as-yet-unreleased new album after inviting them to hear it. Last week, the AP sicced its lawyers on the Drudge Retort, demanding the removal of six blog posts and a comment that included excerpts from AP stories. Each item, in fact, consisted of little more than a headline, a link to an AP story on Yahoo or an AP member's site, and a short excerpt -- less than 80 words, or about half the length of the paragraph you just read.

In a letter sent to the Retort, the AP argued that this violated its copyrights and its rights under the Supreme Court's "hot news" ruling from 1918. In that case, the court held that a rival news service owned by William Randolph Hearst misappropriated the AP's reporting by siphoning the facts out of breaking news dispatches. As Jeff Jarvis of the BuzzMachine blog observed, the complaints are painfully ironic coming from a news organization that often recycles its member newspapers' work without acknowledging or linking to the original stories.

The AP has an obvious interest in preventing its work from being used for free by outlets that compete with its paying customers, including the Los Angeles Times. But it seems to misunderstand how the Internet has changed the way people find and discuss the news. As in so many other industries, the producers of news are losing control over its dissemination. Readers decide where they want to get news -- for example, at the Drudge Retort, a liberal take-off on the conservative (and far more popular) Drudge Report -- and which stories are important. Trying to stop people from posting excerpts around the Web is akin to asking them not to talk about a story they've read. Besides, if the AP does its job well, the excerpts will whet readers' appetites for the rest of the story, leading them back to the original.

Representatives of the AP and the Media Bloggers Assn. are expected to meet today, and the AP might offer guidelines for what it considers acceptable uses of its material. But courts decide copyright disputes on a case-by-case basis, and there's a well-established fair-use defense for using excerpts for the sake of commentary. A better strategy for the AP would be to promote its work to bloggers, who can help elevate it above the online news din. After all, the problem for most news sources isn't that too many people misappropriate their work online, it's that too few see it at all.