Why the AP is not commiting internet suicide by seeking to protect their copyrights

by Jason Preston on April 8, 2009

A lot of people have noticed that the AP seems to be taking on both Google and The Internet At Large as it moves forward in building an alternative news portal, and promises to be more strict in regulating the use of its content by other sites online.

It’s about time.

The AP has a fine line to walk, but I think it is important that they move to protect their business assets. When anyone can make a free, perfect copy of the product you produce (at great cost), then you need to start paying attention to how people are using those copies, and make sure that others aren’t taking advantage of your products to make themselves rich.

The irony, of course, is that because this whole problem is so new, and also because the RIAA did such a bang-up job of becoming, in the eyes of the public, the devil incarnate, content producers aiming to protect their IP online have an uphill PR battle to fight, even if they’re in the right.

Let’s look at an analogy.

This is a genuine Microsoft product

If you’ve bought a retail-box copy of a Microsoft product in the past several years, you might have noticed the shiny metallic sticker on the box that identifies it as a genuine Microsoft product.

The reason that’s there, is that for a while, people were selling near-identical copies of Microsoft software for half the price, and pretending they were from Microsoft. So Microsoft needed a way to protect their brand; after all, it was easy to make perfect copies of their products (it’s just code), and sell it for less.

But relatively few people think that it would be OK—morally or legally—to take a copy of Microsoft Office, strip the copy protection from it, recompile it, package it up in a box, and open a store, selling this copy of Microsoft Office for half the price of the “real” thing, despite the fact that the two products are identical.

So you tell me: what’s the big difference between a bunch of code and a news article?

Where the AP could screw up royally

There is a difference between protecting your business interests and squelching the conversation. It goes right along with “fair use;” it’s a judgment call.

If the AP decides, as I think they will, to charge licensing fees to sites such as the Huffington Post, who rely on AP content to populate their site, and sell ads against that content as a business, it’s going to be all right with most people (sure, some will complain, but “eh”).

If the AP decides, as I don’t think they will, to pursue licensing fees from individual bloggers and those who aren’t running a business, then they will suffer the same fate as the RIAA, and they’ll get nowhere.

I think the trick to solving the “free rider problem,” as I like to refer to it, is in policing the business use of your content. The real threat to your business is not from those readers who want to talk about and share your articles—those same people are your best customers.

The threat to your business comes from web sites that piggyback on your content, reselling it to advertisers without bearing the cost of production. This depresses the price of the advertising market, and is parasitic in nature.

A quick note about search

I know a big part of the AP push is being framed as “competing with Google.” That’s crap. The numbers show that, on average, around 30% of news readers arrive from Google.

That’s not the same as saying 30% of news readers arrive from Google News.

They are very different things. Google is purely a search services, which is unerringly the friend of the content creator – it is an easy, recognizable navigation interface to web content.

The part that hurts, and the part that just needs to be swallowed, is that search is a better, more effective medium for advertising than print.

Google News is a portal, and in my mind, Google should provide a revenue share with the content providers, or switch to a blank search box like their default home page.

The AP clearly thinks so too. So they’re going to build their own Google News. Not their own Google.

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