The AP Empire Strikes Back

Now it's AP's turn to be a dumb media dinosaur.

I can't help thinking that history is going to look back at the last decade in utter disbelief at the way one company after another — retailers, entertainment corporations, but most of all media enterprises — not only misread the implications of the Internet age, but as time went on failed to learn from the mistakes of others.

It never ends; just when you think that old-line companies finally get it that the rules have changed and they have to change with them … one of them suddenly pops up and tries to reset the rules to circa 1985.

The general reaction is dismay, amusement and sometimes anger (don't those clowns understand?), but before everything there is astonishment. As marketing guru Tom Hayes describes it, "Just when you think the Thanksgiving dinner is going well, Grandpa suddenly wets himself."

So many sectors of society and business have now moved on to the Web 1.0, even Web 2.0, world, that when some leftover from the Industrial Age tries a trick out of the old playbook you can only marvel … then step back so you're not hit by shrapnel from the blow-back.

As you may have read, a few days ago the Associated Press, that venerable (162-year-old) wire service that provides news and feature stories to media outlets all over the world, suddenly decided to go on the warpath against the blogosphere. It chose an unlikely target — the Drudge Retort, a leftist news portal that (as its name suggests) was created in counterpoint to the much-larger and more famous Drudge Report.

Last week, AP wrote to the owner of the Retort, Rogers Cadenhead, demanding that it "expeditiously" take down five stories and one user comment — all of which contained extracts from AP stories — because they constituted violation of AP's copyrights.

Those extracts, Cadenhead confirmed later, amounted to just 33 to 79 words. Moreover, each offered a link to the original story, thus driving the traffic of interested readers to AP itself.

So, what's the problem? That's what everybody wanted to know. Everybody but AP. Apparently some bozo inside the operation had a flash of inspiration that the company could, you know, make money by charging those Internet guys for quoting from AP articles.

How much? There's basically a sliding scale, based on the number of words used, but the number being bandied about the Web is as much as $2.50 per word at the five-word minimum. Given that 99 percent of the bloggers out there have never seen a penny of profit, running even one AP story would essentially put them out of business.

As you imagine, this has created a gigantic blog storm. Even the mainstream media, always wary of criticizing its peers, has picked up on the story both here and in the United Kingdom.

With the exception of the New York Times — I will get to that in a minute — everyone seems to be generally appalled. No one objects in principle to the not-for-profit AP making money, it's just that the way it has suddenly decided to do so seems so out of phase with the times, so ultimately self-defeating, and (not least) in clear violation of the standards of fair use.

Strictly speaking, AP has every right, if it can prove violation of fair usage, to demand that blogs and other Web sites pay for the right to reprint its stories. But even if we assume that these violations have occasionally occurred, the question is why AP would choose this tactic now.

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