ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel. The odds are good that at some point today you took in news from the Associated Press, the AP. Stories from the news gathering cooperative bulk up your morning paper, TV and radio newscasts and they're all over the Internet. The problem, the company says, is that many of those Web sites don't pay for their content.
As NPR's Robert Smith reports, the AP is trying some new ways to crack down.
ROBERT SMITH: For most of the last century the AP wire was the closest thing there was to an Internet, just a lot noisier.
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SMITH: The AP teletype machine started to be used in 1914 to spew out articles shared among the newspapers that made up the Associated Press. But even from the beginning the more AP tried to protect its content, the more someone tried to - well, let's just say, repurpose it.
During World War I the AP caught a competing newswire 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. Jane Seagrave, a senior vice president at the AP, says more technology brought more challenges.
Ms. JANE SEAGRAVE (Senior Vice President, Associated Press): When radio came in in the '30s, was it okay 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.
SMITH: The AP moved from pony express to telegraph to wireless to the first photo wire service.
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Unidentified Man: Now it is only a matter of minutes after a news event has occurred before newspapers all over the country are carrying pictures that tell the story more graphically and completely than the printed word.
SMITH: But the content now moves faster and farther than the makers of that 1930s documentary could've dreamed. And the AP is having trouble keeping track of it all. Earlier this month, Dean Singleton, the chairman of the AP Board, told a gathering of newspaper executives that he was mad as hell at Internet sites that he said walk off with our work. The AP's Jane Seagrave had to dial back the outrage a little.
Ms. SEAGRAVE: We were happy to have our information commented on by bloggers, put on Twitter, circulated through Facebook. Our concern is simply when our content and great amounts of it is harvested or scraped by people who don't pay us for its use.
SMITH: It's the same borrowing problem that the AP has been fighting for more than 100 years. But on the Internet it just becomes harder to track. The AP has contracts with all the big news sites, Google, Yahoo, Huffington Post, but former newspaper editor Alan Mutter says going after the little guys is harder.
Mr. ALAN MUTTER (Former Newspaper Editor): No individual Web site is making a ton of money off the AP. But if you could in theory aggregate all the people who are inappropriately using AP content or member newspaper content, all the pictures, all the headlines, that would be a lot of money if you could charge them each, let's say, two cents a use.
SMITH: Mutter is now a digital media investor and writes 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 these people ripping off AP content. The plan right now at the AP is to develop technology that can at least track where their stories go. And Seagrave says they won't necessarily try to shut down scofflaw sites. Instead, the AP wants to make sure that search engines recognize the difference between the genuine article and ripped-off content.
Ms. SEAGRAVE: So that a consumer has the option to go not to a secondary source, but to go to the original source of breaking news.
SMITH: 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 Internet, but as Alan Mutter points out, the membership of the AP does not.
Mr. MUTTER: It's owned by 1,500 newspapers and there's not one of them who isn't struggling in this economy. The AP has to act like it's going to get tough on this.
SMITH: Or the membership will get tough on them. Newspapers have already been complaining about the cost of the wire service during these lean times. 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.
Robert Smith, NPR News, New York.
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