Blog Post

Did the AP just declare war on news aggregators?

Like virtually every other traditional news entity, the Associated Press newswire has been under pressure for some time from digital media. But this disruption has been even worse for AP and its ilk because they are primarily distributors, and the web has fundamentally democratized content distribution. Instead of trying to find ways to adapt to this new reality, however, the AP seems determined to fight it with everything it has, including lawsuits: On Tuesday, the service launched a lawsuit in New York against a digital news-aggregation service called Meltwater, accusing the service of copyright infringement and “free riding” on its content. The AP says it isn’t going after news aggregators as a whole, but this is clearly meant as a show of force.

Meltwater — which was founded in Oslo, Norway, in 2001 — provides an electronic version of the old-style news clipping services that companies used to use as a way of keeping up on what was being said about them or their products in the media. Instead of a pile of clipped articles from printed newspapers and magazines, Meltwater gives company executives an electronic news-filtering service in return for monthly subscription fees, which summarizes content not just from the AP but from hundreds of other public sources. But that is not the way the Associated Press sees it. According to a statement from CEO Tom Curley, it is a parasite that leeches off the newswire’s content illegally:

Meltwater News is a parasitic distribution service that competes directly with traditional news sources without paying license fees to cover the costs of creating those stories. It has a significant negative impact on the ability of AP to continue providing the high-quality news reports on which the public relies.

The AP is determined to fight rather than adapt

It is interesting that Curley’s argument seems to rest in part on the idea that the Associated Press is providing some kind of public service that is important to democracy, etc. when in reality, the newswire is simply a content-distribution service that is owned by its member newspapers (and produces some of its own content as well). As media theorist Clay Shirky noted in an essay in 2010, this kind of distribution function seems woefully inadequate and possibly even unnecessary in the age of the web. “Syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs,” as Shirky described it.

The AP seems determined to fight this reality, however, and to do whatever it can to maintain control over its content and the scarcity that is at the core of its business model — just as newspaper owners like Rupert Murdoch (s nws) are trying to do with paywalls and other gates around their information. In addition to trying to compel companies like Meltwater to pay licensing fees for using its content (as it has with Google News and others), it is trying hard to keep its journalists from reporting news on Twitter, just as Sky News and other traditional providers are.

The Associated Press says that it isn’t planning to go after news aggregators as a whole and that it isn’t against services or sites that provide headlines and links to AP content. General counsel Laura Malone said in the statement issued by the newswire that Meltwater “is not a typical news aggregator” because it is a closed system that subscribers must pay a fee to access — and therefore not “public” in the sense that Google News is — and that the Norwegian company also provides “lengthier and more systematic excerpts” from AP articles (it also maintains archives of past AP content, the newswire complaint alleges).

To the AP, every news aggregator is a potential threat

When you combine this latest lawsuit with the fact that the AP has forced Google News (s goog) and others to license its content, however — even just to provide an excerpt of a few sentences and a headline — it seems fairly obvious that the newswire either wants aggregators to pay for the right to use any of its content or they will face a lawsuit. And as Jeff Roberts of our sister site paidContent points out, the Meltwater case is actually a throwback to a landmark case from 1918, when the Associated Press won what the courts called a “hot news misappropriation” case against a now-defunct competitor that was “free riding” on the AP’s business model. The AP statement against Meltwater makes the connection explicit:

Meltwater free-rides on AP’s significant investments in gathering and reporting news. In short, Meltwater earns substantial fees for redistributing premium news content, while bearing none of the costs associated with creating that content.

The Associated Press may be trying to create the impression that its dispute with Meltwater is a special case and doesn’t apply to other news aggregators, but its argument about excerpting and free riding could just as easily apply to any site or service that bundles headlines and links — or potentially even to sites like the Huffington Post (s aol), which has been widely criticized by traditional media outlets for “over-aggregation” of their stories. And the AP may also be encouraged by a recent decision in the UK, where Meltwater and other services have to pay mandatory licensing fees for any content that they aggregate from newspapers or other traditional outlets.

As I have tried to describe before, I think the AP’s attitude is fundamentally futile, whether it involves stopping reporters from breaking news on Twitter or suing those who reuse or aggregate its content. It is clear that the newswire is threatened by the web and the democratization of distribution, but putting up walls and filing lawsuits is a waste of time and money — and it is not even obvious that the AP’s “hot news” claim has a hope of succeeding, since U.S. copyright law is so different from that of the UK. All it does is make the AP seem like a frightened, cornered animal.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum and Rochelle Hartman

28 Responses to “Did the AP just declare war on news aggregators?”

  1. Have you noticed how every new media publication such as GigaOm treats litigation pejoratively? Would Matthew prefer that we resolve disputes with swords? If the AP thinks it has a case good for the AP. It’s fun to hate litigators until you need one yourself.

  2. Evil Bert

    It’s simple, Meltwire is reselling a service that the AP pays to create. The articles themselves are copyrighted by the AP, they are not free.
    If Meltwire wrote their own articles or gave away their own original content for free, that would be democratization of the Internet and content.
    Taking someone elses copyrighted material, then reselling it is theft.

    Example: I take a picture, I sell a print of that picture, someone buys a print and then makes copies and sells them…that’s theft. Same with the articles the AP puts out.

  3. I’m no AP fan, but it does strike me that Meltwater was crossing a line. They were archiving AP content and aggregating it for a paying audience. For that, Meltwater should be paying to license the content.

  4. Adapt how? In order to continue to produce a product, you have to get paid for it. Why should an aggregator be able to make all the money without paying who produced what they’re selling?

  5. Another dying member of the old media system decides to end it’s life kicking and screaming like a spoiled brat instead of evolving to meet the standards of a new day. Go figure. See you in hell, AP. Nothing of value was lost.

  6. Eric S. Dauré

    1st – agreed that AP should just buy Meltwater and get on with life. Maybe this is a plan to get it for cheap by painting them into a corner with the lawsuit and getting a leveraged buy as settlement…? 2nd – The AP makes it’s money by reporting on the events in the lives of other people and entities in society. Those others are affected by Ap’s stories in countless ways, often adversely, but barring libel are never compensated for the money AP makes “parasitically” feeding off the events of their lives. Then when the “victims” of AP’s “parasitic” stories feel compelled to pay a 3rd party to monitor the AP for damage-control purposes, the AP demands payment. So it could be argues the AP first misappropriates for profit the events of people’s lives, and now is so bold as to essentially demand extortion funds from it’s “hosts” via the 3rd party inorder for them to discover the impact AP’s stories have had on them. If the AP wants compensation from a company that give its “parasitic hosts” access to stories about themselves, perhaps they should in turn be obliged to a) compensate their “hosts” for their unwilling participation in their stories, or b) provide a service like Meltwater free of charge to any entity they name in an article. Yes, I’m aware of the couter-arguments: news costs money to produce and is intellectual property, whereas, our lives in the public eye are, well, public and not profit-driven “products” with production costs, as are the stories about them. And yes, compensating subjects of the news, or providing them free updates a la Meltwater would be cost prohibitive. So I’m being fairly tongue-in-cheek here. But I do think that, seen in the light of their own complaint, the AP can also be legitimately seen as parasitic; just in a way our culture and legal system does not recognize (existentially/morally, rather than legally/economically) and implicitly accepts as natural, beneficial and proper. But just because it’s accepted as doesn’t mean it isn’t there. So whether or not the AP is legally correct, it’s not clear to me that they have any moral high-ground here (not to say they care about that anyway…)

  7. John Granatino

    How is taking someone’s creative work product without paying democratization? I am certainly open to persuasion but the sweeping generalizations and fuzzy thinking of this piece will not convince those who prefer to be paid for their work or competitors who paid for the right to use the AP’s service.

  8. Has it never occurred to these traditional businesses that aggreggators SEND THEM business – not take it away? People used clipping services to know where to look – and no doubt when there was an article of note then BOUGHT COPIES. Today busy people use aggregators to alert them to something they may want to read in its entirety.

    Perhaps someone could explain viral to them – although I suspect they still would not “get it”.

  9. Wait, so AP should give away their content for free… and then make money, how? Everyone has all these great ideas about how news agencies should work, but nobody seems to have a solution. And if I hear one more idiot claim that twitter is the new news wire, I’m going to puke. Twitter is at best a middle-schoolers stream of thought online. It’s about as reliable of a news source as the National Enquirer.

  10. Larry Grimes

    And why should aggragators be allowed to steal content and re-post it for profit? AP spent the money to gather and report on the news. I’m sorry, but they deserve to own the stories they publish and to distribute them as they wish. This is theft.

    • why theft? if someone wants to read the story, they still have to go to the newspapers website, the site still gets the traffic they need to attract advertisers, that should be how they make their money. The AP are wrong about how Meltwater works, it does not provide full text, just 2 lines of an article, so everyone will always want to follow the link to the real story.

      Theft is a very strong word and not what is happening, with Meltwater or anyone else.

      good article by the way

  11. Too bad 90% of the web is stealing media content and calling it democratization.

    It’s theft, plain and simple.

    If I can get my hand on Googles search algorithm and repost it, the I can democratize as well. That’s ok, right?

    My guess is the Justice Dept and FBI would be called in.

    Pay damages, go to jail, what, me worry?

  12. Danny Brown

    Dear AP,

    Congratulations on making yourself as irrelevant as possible. Talk about completely missing the opportunity to adapt and be a power player in the digital distribution space…

  13. Why AP is keep on building Igloos (snow houses)? How come they can’t be aware of the fact that Ice Age has gone tens of thousands of decades ago!. Come on AP, it isn’t all about content now, those days are gone. So, do something innovative and try to adopt.