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.
For one thing, the precedent is really murky on this. I'm an old newspaperman, and for 30 years I've watched papers take an AP story from their first edition, add some negligible local quote, and suddenly transform the story into a by-lined piece by an in-house reporter, with a line at the end of the story also crediting "wire services." Why didn't AP go after them?
Meanwhile, how many of us bloggers, columnists and magazine editors (and I've been all three) have seen our stories lifted by AP or Reuters, edited slightly, and turned into their stories. Should we sue back?
No, of course not. The mistake AP is making — which Metallica and the music industry made before it — is to try to assert old rules on a new zeitgeist. And what is most appalling about this is that AP seems to have learned nothing from those mistaken strategies, even though AP reporters themselves wrote dozens of stories about them. Doesn't AP read its own stuff?
What makes this all the more tragic is that the Associated Press was in the best position to survive the collapse of the newspaper industry.
As the purveyor of raw news stories, AP should have embarked on a strategy of slowly moving away from its newspaper clients and converting itself into a pure online news service — i.e., the uber-Web newspaper for the World. It could have then sold advertising on its site (or, in a more clever wrinkle, required anyone who reprinted an AP story to carry embedded advertising with it) and likely made a lot more money than it makes now.
But that would have required AP to actually understand the changed world it is ostensibly reporting upon. Instead, it has chosen the path of its member newspapers — not what you would call an enlightened business strategy — towards irrelevance.
AP even appears to be following its members in the suicidal direction of ever-increasing editorial bias: Both the right (on Iraq) and the left (on Hillary Clinton) have made strong cases in the last few months that AP is suffering a crisis of integrity.
Isn't the toxic combination of abandoning its editorial principles, clinging to an old business model, and attacking the Web world precisely what has nearly killed the traditional newspaper business?
Though no one else is surprised, AP now appears to be shocked by the vehemence of the response from the blogosphere — angry columns, calls for boycotts of all AP stories, sites like the Daily Kos challenging AP to sue them — and has begun to backpedal. But even its new moves seem suspiciously orchestrated.
In particular, the Associated Press has now announced that it will meet with an organization called the "Media Bloggers Association" to hash out "guidelines" for bloggers using AP stories.
Leaving aside the fact that those guidelines are already delineated by copyright law, it appears that nobody has ever heard of the Media Bloggers Association, which presumes to speak for those 50-plus million bloggers out there. As Robert X. Cringely of InfoWorld asked, "Can anyone join? Do they have jackets?"