AP To Sue Google News? Blogs? Someone?

AP is going to sue people for using their content:

The Associated Press and its member newspapers will take legal action against Web sites that use newspaper articles without legal permission, the group said on Monday, in a clear shot at aggregators like Google.

In a speech at The A.P.’s annual meeting in San Diego, William Dean Singleton, chairman of the group, said, “We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories.”

In a statement, The A.P. said it would develop a system to track news articles online and determine whether they were being used legally.

The statement did not mention Google or any other adversary by name, but many newspaper executives have spoken recently about their concern that Google and other major aggregators and Web portals are making money from the newspapers’ work, by selling ads on news pages that turn up their articles.

I can’t for the life of me figure out why AP and its member papers think Google News is hurthing their business model.  They merely aggregate headlines and send links to the original online sources — i.e., AP’s members.

It may simply be that Richard Perez-Pena, the NYT correspondent whose story I’m quoting above, is taking a leap that aggregators are the target.  Blogs and other online venues that reproduce stories, often without much transformative commentary, are much more likely to siphon off readership from the original sources.

This is something of a perennial story.  Three years ago, Michael Bates was sued by Tulsa World on similar grounds, generating a blogospheric firestorm.  This February, Bates was forced to apologize on threat of a defamation suit from said paper.

Last June, AP threatened to sue bloggers for copying their content (see “AP Fair Use Guidelines” and “Wire Service Theft for some backstory).  They ultimately thought the better of it, partly as a result of mediation by the Media Bloggers Association but the basic question — what constitutes “Fair Use” in matters of breaking news — was never really resolved.  Further, as MBA president Bob Cox notes, one can be right on the legal merits, win in court, and still go bankrupt defending yourself.

I’ll be interested to see where AP is going with this.  Keeping themselves out of the aggregators — the main gatekeepers for entry on the Web these days — will just get them bypassed.  And suing bloggers will get themselves left out of the discussion without adding much to their own bottom line.  (As I noted in my discussion of this mess last year, few if any blogs garnering significant traffic mostly cut-and-paste news stories without transforming them).

UPDATEFausta Wertz wonders about online sources that do original research but use AP as part of their research:

By the time I post a story I use dozens of links from international media, including local newspapers from the countries where the stories develop. […]  Should I be concerned that AP is going to sue me because they think that I may have “copied or paraphrased” them? Or should I just bypass anything from AP and totally ignore them?

I can’t imagine AP is concerned with sites that use multiple sources to form an opinions before writing.  But if AP is still of the mind that even their headlines and lede sentences constitute “intellectual property” that must be protected from even linked and cited use, it’s not at all obvious where they believe the line to be drawn.

I’m quite sure Fausta would win if she were sued.  But, as per Cox’ link above, winning a lawsuit with a corporation can be a Pyrric victory.

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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. If the AP truly believes that the path to success is to require people to go to an AP-approved site to read ANY of its content, then removing the content from non-AP sites is only half the battle. The other half is to convince the public that all of the non-AP sites have inferior content and should be avoided in favor of AP sites. Unfortunately for AP, silos are out of fashion these days.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    The dark side of the Long Tail.

    It seems to me that this is of a piece with the RIAA suing individuals doing small-scale illegal distribution. They can sue. They can win. They probably can’t collect. The most they’ll probably accomplish is to alienate readers.

    Note that the readers aren’t the AP’s customers. Its subscribers, the newspapers, are.

  3. steve s says:

    Yeah there are similarities here with the RIAA. Business model suddenly eroded by new technology. Trying to sue your profits back. Ugh. I can understand why they do it, but it’s still stupid.

  4. Bithead says:

    the obvious leaves out in the form of a conversation we had earlier today. That was with regards to the dinosaurs adopting new models on the web. It strikes me as an ugly plausible that what AP is attempting to do is eliminate competition on the web with legal chicanery.