Odds are good that at some point today you have taken in news from The Associated Press. Stories from the news-gathering cooperative bulk up the morning paper, TV and radio newscasts — and they are all over the Internet. The problem, the company says, is that many Web sites don't pay for the content.
But misuse of content is nothing new for the wire service; from the cooperative's beginnings in 1846, the more AP tried to protect its content, the more someone tried to repurpose it. During World War I, the AP caught the International News Service, a competitor, rewriting its stories from the front lines. The legal action went to the Supreme Court, which ruled that while you can't copyright facts, you can't steal something of value either.
More technology brought more challenges, says Jane Seagrave, a senior vice president at the AP: "When radio came in the 1930s, was it OK for someone to pick up a newspaper and read AP stories over the air? Well, as it happened, it wasn't, and we ended up licensing radio stations."
The AP was quick to adopt whatever technology was at hand to distribute the news — from pony express, to telegraph, to wireless, to the first photo wire service. But news content now moves faster and farther than the company's creators could have dreamed, and the AP is having trouble keeping track of it all.
Earlier this month, Dean Singleton, the chairman of the AP Board of Directors, told a gathering of newspaper executives that he was "mad as hell" at Internet sites that he said "walk off with our work."
But Seagrave dialed back the outrage a little: "We're happy to have our information commented on by bloggers, put on Twitter, circulated through Facebook. Our concern is when our content and great amounts of it is harvested or scraped by people who don't pay us for its use."
It's the same "borrowing" problem that the AP has been fighting for more than 100 years, except that on the Internet, the misappropriation becomes harder to track. The AP has contracts with all the big news sites — including Google, Yahoo and The Huffington Post — but former newspaper editor Alan Mutter says going after the little guys is harder.
"No individual Web site is making a ton of money off the AP," says Mutter. "But if you could, in theory, aggregate all the people who are using AP content or AP member newspaper content — all the pictures, all the headlines — that would be a lot of money, if you could charge them all two cents a use."
Mutter is now a digital media investor and the author of the blog Reflections of a Newsosaur. He says the question is whether it will be worth the time and effort to individually go after each of the people ripping off AP content.
The plan right now at the AP is to develop technology that can at least track where the AP stories go and allow member newspapers some measure of control over where their shared content ends up. And Seagrave says they won't necessarily try to shut scofflaw sites down. Instead, she says, the AP wants to make sure that search engines recognize the difference between the genuine article and ripped-off content, "so that a consumer has the option to go not to a secondary source but to go to the original source of breaking news."
It's hard to know if any of this is technologically possible — or if it's even that big a priority at the AP. The wire service already makes a lot of money by selling news to the big Internet sites. But, as Alan Mutter points out, the membership of the AP doesn't.
"It's owned by 1,500 newspapers, and there's not one of them that isn't struggling in this economy," says Mutter. "The AP has to act like its going to get tough on this."
Or the membership may get tough on the AP; newspapers have already been complaining about the cost of the wire service during these lean times, and several have given notice that they want to quit the cooperative. Any money that the AP can get from the Internet means less money newspapers may have to fork out themselves.