Associated Press takes heat for article-tagging plan

A week in the blogosphere without a teapot-sized tempest is a week without... well, probably electrical power if not gravity. Last week's target for tumult was the Associated Press, which announced Thursday that it would implement a new system to detect unlicensed use of its content and promptly fell into a swamp of blogger fury, with all parties eventually screaming "fair use!" -- to the amusement and edification of absolutely no one.

The AP's news registry project, which is slated to roll out in November, will add an "informational wrapper" to its material, designed to alert the service to wholesale grabs by other web sites. Text content will be wrapped first, followed by photos and video.

AP's own Michael Liedtke did a pretty decent writeup of the announcement, flagging potential privacy concerns and getting a quote from the Berkman Center for Internet and Society's John Palfrey to the effect that too much tracking could backfire on AP if readers got nervous -- "A potential third rail."

What Mr. Palfrey didn't mention was the danger that the announcement could be interpreted by certain quarters of the blogosphere as ZOMG AP GONNA GETCHA!!! Still smarting from earlier AP efforts to clamp down on overexuberant excerpts and sites that jumped a little too quickly on breaking news coverage, media bloggers lumped the announcement in with those issues and framed it all as another example of AP Just Doesn't Get It.

According to an interview with Associated Press CEO Tom Curley, AP believes that even minimal link to AP content online -- a headline-link combination, for instance -- required a licensing agreement with the organization that produced it. That is by any measure a rather aggressive stance to take online (as multiple legal challenges, dating back to the conflict between Microsoft and Ticketmaster over "deep links", have shown), but a significant challenge to concepts of fair use.

Multiple bloggers jumped on the situation, in one case calling the AP "the RIAA of news." (And at least one writer shrugged that, like all DRM, such a wrapper is probably made to be broken.)

It fell tot he old-line media outlets -- in this case the Columbia Journalism Review -- to go back to AP and ask what the heck they were thinking. Ryan Chittum asked himself, as he puts it, "is AP really that stupid?" -- and concluded after a talk with Jane Seagrave, AP's senior vice president of global product development, that "they're really not that stupid."

Seagrave told Chittum that the target of the effort isn't Google (with whom AP already has an arrangement, of course) or individual bloggers -- "that's not our intent" -- but wholesale appropriation by news aggregators who are "copying and pasting or taking by RSS feeds dozens or hundreds of our stories."

A wise observer would ask if Seagrave and Curley maybe shouldn't spend some time getting their story straight rectifying discrepancies between how the system might be used and how it will be used; as it is, Seagrave seemed mainly annoyed by the controversy, which she said was caused by people trying to make Ap "look silly."

However, she did say something more interesting about the system, about which tech details are currently scant and likely to stay that way until the hackers lay hands on it. According to Chittum, Seagrave said the new wrapper system "is not digital-rights management that says no you can't... It says this is how you can." What does that mean? Metatagging? A ssytem of notices in the style of the Creative Commons copyleft effort? It's all foggy for now, but until all parties agree to operate on a fact-based system rather than throwing around fair-use claims and random loss amount allegedly due to content piracy, perhaps the best onlookers can hope for is a convenient lighthouse.

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