AP Wins Case Limiting Fair Use

AP has won round 1 in a case against Meltwater that would severely limit the Fair Use concept in commercial cases.


AP has won round 1 in a case against Meltwater that would severely limit the Fair Use concept in commercial cases.

paidContent (“AP wins big: Why a court said clipping content is not fair use“):

A federal court has sided with the Associated Press and the New York Times in a closely-watched case involving a company that scraped news content from the internet without paying for it.


The defendant in the case is Norway-based Meltwater, a service that monitors the internet for news about its clients. Its clients, which include companies and governments, pay thousands of dollars a year to receive news alerts and to search Meltwater’s database.

Meltwater sends its alerts to client in the form of newsletters than include stories from AP and other sources. Meltwater’s reports include headlines, the first part of the story known as the “lede,” and the sentence in the story in which a relevant keyword first appears. The Associated Press demanded Meltwater buy a license to distribute the story excerpts and, when the service refused, the AP sued it for copyright infringement.

Meltwater responded by saying it can use the stories under copyright’s “fair use” rules, which creates an exception for certain activities. Specifically, Meltwater said its activities are akin to a search engine — in the same way that it’s fair use for Google to show headlines and snippets of text in its search results, Meltwater said it’s fair use to clip and display news stories.


To decide if something is fair use, courts apply a four-part test that turns in large part on whether the defendant is using the copyrighted work for something new or unrelated to its original purpose. Famous examples of fair use include a parody rap song of “Pretty Woman” and Google’s display of thumb-size pictures in its image search. In the AP case, however, Meltwater’s fair use defense failed.

Judge Cote rejected the fair use claim in large part because she didn’t buy Meltwater’s claim that it’s a “search engine” that makes transformative use of the AP’s content. Instead, Cote concluded that Meltwater is more like a business rival to AP: “Instead of driving subscribers to third-party websites, Meltwater News acts as a substitute for news sites operated or licensed by AP.”

Cote’s rejection of Meltwater’s search engine argument was based in part on the “click-through” rate of its stories. Whereas Google News users clicked through to 56 percent of excerpted stories, the equivalent rate for Meltwater was 0.08 percent, according to figures cited in the judgement. Cote’s point was that Meltwater’s service doesn’t provide people with a means to discover the AP’s stories (like a search engine) — but instead is a way to replace them.

Now, this strikes me as silly. Meltwater is in no ways a rival news service. It’s not a news service at all. It’s a way for an organization to keep track of its coverage in the world press.

The think tank that employs me tried out Meltwater’s service some time back. I don’t know whether we ultimately signed up as a client; the rates were exorbitant. But it was a way, far more efficiently than possible through Google News or even Lexus-Nexis, to keep track of the mentions of the organization, its CEO, and other key stakeholders. In addition to the snippets, which I doubt we used all that much, there were various analytics and graphing packages.

While AP and NYT content was certainly included, this is in no way competitive with what they do. We were still reading the press for actual news content. Meltwater isn’t (or, at least wasn’t when I was involved with the trial run) a real-time provider. More importantly, while we were naturally interested on our mentions in the press, it was by no means the main AP or NYT content we were reading. That is, unless the only reason you would read AP content was to find out what AP was saying about you or your business, Meltwater was not competition for AP.

Conversely, so far as I’m aware, neither AP nor NYT provides such a clipping service.  Let alone one which includes hundreds of other news sources and allows integrated analysis. If Meltwater or something like it didn’t exist, in other words, companies wouldn’t instead become AP subscribers.

Indeed, AP isn’t really arguing that Meltwater is infringing on its business model; they just wanted Meltwater to give AP a piece of the pie.

As all of the clipping service’s competitors have already paid AP for a license, the impact could be insignificant for everyone but Meltwater while, at the same time, boosting the AP’s resources for gathering news.

Beyond the narrow issue of whether what Meltwater does is Fair Use, the judge’s logic would have an incredible chilling effect on, for example, what we do at OTB.

The judgement also points to the amount of content that Meltwater replicated. Whereas fair use allows anyone to reproduce a headline and snippets, Cote suggested Meltwater took “the heart” of the copyrighted work by also reproducing the “lede” and other sentences:

“A lede is a sentence that takes significant journalistic skill to craft.  [It shows] the creativity and therefore protected expression involved with writing a lede and the skill required to tweak a reader’s interest.”

Of that, there’s no doubt. But the notion that replicating the lede violates Fair Use goes against literally every bit of case law I’ve seen on this issue. There’s legitimate question as to whether taking several paragraphs of the work, especially without including substantial commentary or other transformative work, constitutes Fair Use. But taking the first sentence?!

As noted earlier in the story, Google won a landmark Fair Use case involving its image search. But, as someone who uses it on a regular basis—and who runs another site whose original images routinely come up in its searches—I’d note that the current iteration of the service now pops up a full-size, high resolution version of the image that takes away any incentive at all to visit the site that posted it. That would seem to run afoul of this ruling. And, maybe it should. But the natural retort is that, without Google’s indexing of said images, nobody who hadn’t visited the site organically would have any way of knowing that the image existed.

It’s worth noting, too, that US law is far more generous to those making derivative works than the laws of most countries. France and Germany, for example, are at war with Google News, trying to force them to pay to use even tiny snippets of copyrighted stories.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Media, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. John Burgess says:

    Two points:

    1. OTB should not run afoul of this ruling because OTB does not merely republish stories. The stories or clips are analyzed and commented upon, thus transformed. This, I believe, takes them squarely into the realm of ‘fair use’.

    2. Embassies working abroad usually have a similar, internal service where one office (usually Public Affairs) goes through the local media to select (and translate, if necessary) stories relevant to other offices within the Embassy. Rather than getting 50+ subscriptions to a local paper, a few offices get them and the other offices rely on the clipping service. This is also done in DC, with massive clippings pulled for the DoD, State, CIA, the White House, etc.

    When I was at the US Embassy in London, a copyright protection service attempted to extort extract fees from all embassies doing this. Jointly, the embassies of many countries argued ‘fair use’ and, if that were legally insufficient, then diplomatic immunity would take care of the problem.

  2. C. Clavin says:

    I’ve worked for companies that did this same thing in-house.
    Not sure why outsourcing the task would be much different.

  3. Tsar Nicholas says:

    How many layers of irony are embodied in this kerfuffle?

    A hard left-wing wire new service (AP) and an extreme left-wing print media company (NYT) suing a non-competitor wire lede aggregator, allegedly for damaging their profit potential by violating a legal monopoly of their (copyright law), and then fighting against an exception to copyright law (fair use), for which in various other contexts liberal media outlets such as the AP and the NYT vigorously in their own favor have advocated.

    In certain respects this reminds me of Michael Moore suing his former business partners for lost profits or Al Gore trying to ram a sale through before the new year to avoid potentially higher capital gains tax rates.

    Leftism for thee, but not for me.

    In any event, if what this Meltwater company is doing is not fair use then we might as well not even have a fair use doctrine. This truly is a dumb ruling. Presumably, and hopefully, it’ll be overturned on appeal.

  4. bk says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: I stopped reading after this gem:

    A hard left-wing wire new service (AP)

  5. grumpy realist says:

    @Tsar Nicholas: If you believe that AP is a “hard left-wing news service”…….

    It’s true: anything that falls into reality is now considered “left-wing” by the crazy right, which prefers to make up its own facts. No wonder it’s your side of the aisle that is populated by those who think the Earth is 7000 years old, that women can’t get pregnant via rape, and that global warming isn’t happening.