AP Tells Google and Other News Aggregators to Pay Up or Face Lawsuits

The Associated Press has announced that it is willing to fight over the question of who owns the content its member newspapers produce, even if it means no longer playing nice with the giants of the Web like Google.

On Monday, the AP announced that it would no longer allow news aggregators -- neither the big ones like Google and Yahoo!, nor the smaller, specialized sites -- to use its content without paying up. The announcement was made by William Dean Singleton, CEO of MediaNews Group, Inc., at the AP's annual meeting in San Diego. 

"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work. . . . We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it anymore," Singleton said.

Details of how AP plans to enforce its new doctrine were not provided, and Google and other sites defended their practices. Google, which has recently included ads in its Google News search results (and thus competing directly with the companies whose content they aggregate) said what news aggregators always say: News orgs ought to be happy they aren't ignored.  

"We believe search engines are of real benefit to newspapers, driving valuable traffic to their Web sites and connecting them with new readers around the world," said Gabriel Stricker, a Google spokesman. "We believe that both Google Web Search and Google News are fully consistent with copyright law — we simply link users to the site at which the news story appears."

There's no question that the stakes are high, and the question of ownership is being asked with greater urgency than ever. (We raised it here recently, in connection with the Huffington Post.)  Newspapers are staring into the abyss and contemplating something they once never imagined: a universe without them. That tends to focus one's attention, after all.

The legal fight is over fair use, again: When sites like Google link to articles others have paid for are they stealing it, or using it in a permissible way. It usually hinges on the subordinate question: Does including an article in a search engine results sufficiently transform it to make part of something new.

The AP rattled its guns last summer in a dispute with the Drudge Retort, a liberal parody of the better known Drudge Report, but then pulled back.  (David Ardia applauded their rethinking at the time.)

If this dispute ends in court, we may finally get some resolution to questions that haven't been addressed by the Supreme Court. It's a fight that Sam Singer, over at The Beachwood Reporter, thinks the AP would be wise to avoid. (The Ninth Circuit ruled in Google's favor in a similar case, though it involved its photo search.  Perfect 10 v Google, 508 F.3d 1146, 1165 (9th Cir. 2007.))

But others have argued that AP should have been more aggressive years ago. (See this month's AJR, A Costly Mistake?)

And it's only fair to point out that AP itself has come under heavy fire in recent years for what many editors feel have been its focus on new media clients like Yahoo!, for instance, at the expense of the newspapers it has traditionally served.

Indeed, the news organization has dramatically reorganized in the past couple years, with more focus on news that will win a national or international audience on the Web, and deemphasized the kinds of meat-and-potatoes coverage on its state wires. The result has been a new emphasis on celebrity news that wins clicks on online sites, and on investigative and enterprise news that directly competes with newspapers, just at a time when the papers are depending more heavily than ever before on the AP for such things as routine statehouse coverage.

A few newspapers have dropped AP altogether, and in that sense Singleton's speech could be seen as a message to the base: We haven't forgotten you.

That's welcome news, even to a newspaper reporter who routinely uses Google News to find content I want. The solution may lie outside of court; after all AP has indicated it doesn't want to stop the use of its content across the Web, it just wants to make sure that it shares in the revenue.

How that is worked out remains to be seen -- it may involve Google changing the way it provides search results, making sure that the original producers' content appears first, and when (as is often the case) thousands of original sources compete, the most authoritative sites prevail.

But the AP apparently believes, and so does this reporter, that it's worth fighting about.

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