Thursday, April 16, 2009

Digital Newsroom: AP and the news copyright conundrum

Wherefore art though AP?

The Associated Press doesn’t have the (huge) overhead of printing a physical paper. That cost is eaten by AP members -- namely, newspapers. So why hasn’t the AP taken the lead in the digital revolution? After all, as a wire service, they actually kinda sorta predicted the internet before it happened. But the AP been shrinking instead of expanding. Why?

Well, if you ask Dean Singleton, chairman of AP, he’ll blame copyright law. Art Brodsky at the Huffington Post sees flaws in this, and I do too. Copyright law has nothing to do with it.

Copyright, copyleft, or copymiddle?

I'll come back to the AP, but first, let's talk about copyrights. Let me preface this discussion by saying that you could describe my personal views on copyright law as “information freeganism.”

Maybe it’s my background in science, which relies on the free flow of information. Or maybe it’s my background as a writer. (Although some people try to sweep this fact under the rug, art also relies heavily on sharing information.) I tend to hold an idealistic view that people should create content, and once that information is created, it should be freely shared. The problem with that, clearly, is that if information is free, who will make it? Well, I think we should pay for the creation of content, not the access to it. Yes, there are problems with that too, like, how do you determine the value of content before it is given to the public? But I don't have to have all the answers yet, do I?

You can see why it's called copyleft, right?

I'm not quite copyleft, I'm more Creative Commons. (And not just because the White House embraces it.) The wonderful thing about Creative Commons is that it's an opt in or opt system -- what you want done with your work is totally up to you.

Last week during the Conference on World Affairs I live-blogged a panel called “Who owns the Creative Commons?” A mathematics professor, a Hollywood screenwriter, a technology blogger and sci-fi author, and a web-radio producer/musician debated internet copyright law.
Some of the points raised are relevant to Brodsky’s criticism of the AP:
  • Sanjoy Mahajan said that ideas are not the same as physical objects. Sharing them doesn’t take anything away from the person who originally had them. The original purpose of U.S. copyright law was to promote the progress of ideas, not hinder it.
  • For some, like Andy Inhatko, creation is fundamentally different from sharing or modifying. (It takes more moaning and groaning.)
  • Ultimately, society (not AP, not Napster) will collectively decide how copyrights will work on the web.

What the AP distributes are not just creative works (yes, I think that reporting is a creative process, so I will refer to it as a creative work), but are also ideas – namely, information and analysis about the world. I think it is necessary for people to cite and reference them...often. You simply cannot discuss an event without referring to a description of it, and in that sense reproducing a news article qualifies as fair use.
So, what is the AP to do, seeing as they don’t have a legal claim here?

All's not lost, AP

If I got stuck – planned or not – in an elevator with Dean Singleton, chairman of AP, here’s what I would tell him: You should rejoice because your position makes you more suited to adapt to the internet than other “traditional” news outlets.
Here’s what you have:
  • a network of national and international reporters and editors,
  • a time-tested way of distributing your information,
  • a recognized and trusted brand

What don’t you have? Just one thing, but it’s kind of a biggie:
  • a collection of individual users who are accustomed and willing to pay for its content.

The reason it doesn’t have that is because, until now, its users are newspapers. Big, old, dying, newspapers.

Singleton my friend, I’d say, it’s not you. It’s them. The AP is in a strange position where while it is losing its users (newspapers) -- and by doing so, it is atrophying and losing itself. But it isn’t by any means losing its audience, the people who actually read the stories. And that’s the major problem here, not the internet and not copyright law.

Let’s just imagine for a moment, Singleton, that all the newspapers are gone. Where will AP license it’s content? Well, websites, of course, he’ll say.

Great! But there’s a problem with that. On the web, why license when you can link?
In light of that, the AP, which has a goal of being the most ubiquitous, most trusted, “essential global news network,” should be happy people are already linking to their content willy nilly, right?

Well they would be, if they weren’t so good at blending into the foreground. The way the AP distributes its content to newspapers, it must blend in. But if it is going to survive when all of its co-op members crumble, it must learn to stand out.

To brand itself better.

To remind people that they read AP stories because they are well-reported, well-written, well-edited and most important, far-reaching.

As Brodsky writes, "The news business has a lot of problems, no doubt. Some are beyond its control, but some are self-inflicted."

So, Singleton…seize your power! Embrace and encourage the spread of your content – and it will spread – and you will succeed. You should be setting the new standard for your member newspapers, not taking a cue from them. As Mahajan pointed out in the CWA panel, when European works weren’t protected under U.S. copyright law in the 19th century, it actually turned out better for the artists. Publishers were able to make copies of their work cheaply, and sell them cheaply, and they outsold copyrighted versions by a large enough factor to blow away their profits.

And you, AP, can be a publisher too. A web publisher. If, of course, that’s what you want. Or rather, if that what your “owners” – the 1500 newspapers who make up your co-op – want. At the heart of this, you’ve got to win them over, too.

News organizations, which hold the transparency of information as one of their key values, are never going to survive if they insist on putting up a gate between the news and the people.


kys said...

Anonymous said...

Shouldn'tit be Thou not Though?