What’s it worth to you?

Preach it, Jon Carroll:

One day last month, representative of the California Highway Patrol visited classrooms to deliver some bad news: Some classmates of theirs had been killed in traffic accidents. Alcohol apparently was involved. The students, as might be expected, were stunned. Many wept. Some screamed. School stopped as people comforted each other.

Then, a few hours later, the administrators announced that it was all a joke. Well, not a joke – it was an educational experience. The administrators had set up the stunt to make the students understand how very sad death is, and how drinking booze and driving is a bad thing. It was something the students will never forget, the administrators said, and oh how true that is.

The takeaway is: Don’t trust anyone. Grown-ups will lie to you and try to make you feel bad. The world sucks even worse than you thought it did. Guidance counselor Lori Tauber defended the exercise: “They were traumatized, but we wanted them to be traumatized. That’s how they get the message.”

Note that’s a rather lengthy pullquote from Carroll’s column. Long enough for the Associated Press to price it at, oh, $50, which last year constituted about 15 percent of this blog’s revenue. The AP’s proposal to start billing blogs for as little as five words of fair-use quoting has the blogworld in a tizzy, but I’m holding my fire, for now. Far too much hot air has risen heavenward since the beginning of the blog/MSM relationship, and there’s no need to add to it. Here’s a typical comment left on the original story linked above:

Wow. It’s amazing how a major news organization like the AP can be so woefully ignorant on this topic. Charging blogs for the privilege of fair use? Amazing! The AP should be thanking bloggers for linking their way, not trying to tax them for snipping a couple sentences.

I’m not unsympathetic to this argument — I’ve used it myself, when it suited my purposes — but it represents a fundamental misunderstanding of how the AP works. As we were taught in j-school: The AP is a co-op. Member newspapers pay a fee to use its content, and agree to contribute in turn. (Some have subscription-only memberships; Wikipedia’s entry is about how I remember it being explained to me as a student.) Content is generated by those contributions, and by a relatively small staff of AP-employed correspondents. The daily call from the AP is a ritual on most metro and state desks, and sending them copy is part of the desk editor’s job. Once upon a time, this worked pretty well — there was lots of money to pay the fees, and lots of copy to keep the wires full, full enough that most papers employ a full-time wire editor just to stand by the sluice all day, directing stories to different departments and keeping an eye on breaking news elsewhere.

The AP doesn’t sell advertising. They collect fees and manage their content. It has no financial interest in eyeballs on their copy, except as it affects their member newspapers and broadcast outlets. The copy — er, “content” in the 21st century — is the coin of the AP realm. Make it too freely available, and it’s devalued.

(There’s another problem presenting itself, and that is the shrinking of its contributing membership. At my old Indiana newspaper, we once had a full-time correspondent in Indianapolis. He covered the state legislature, but obviously he couldn’t be everywhere. The AP filled in the gaps when he was elsewhere, and in turn we contributed his stuff to the wire. When we lost that position, the AP became our de facto Indy correspondent. But even the AP can’t be everywhere, and needs member contributions to be effective. So the AP shrinks, too. Less government coverage all around. You see why this stuff is important to keeping an eye on democracy? And please don’t give me that crap about citizen journalists picking up the slack. They. Are. Not.)

Already, several major papers post virtually everything that comes over the wire on their websites, under their brand and surrounded by their ads. Bloggers pick it up and repost it on their sites, perhaps with a few comments, perhaps not. The AP gets bupkis for this. Which brings us to another comment from that original BetaNews story:

Freedom of the press isn’t apparently. It should be completely free to take and quote from AP as long as it cites its references. Originally I thought it was just an issue of plagiarism but now I see the AP is just a bunch of greedy AH’s.

Astonishingly ignorant, that. “It should be completely free” because…why? Journalism fairies will pay the AP staff’s salaries? And “greedy”? Friend, let me introduce you to a witticism offered frequently by grimly smiling AP staffers, usually when ordering the least-expensive item on the menu: “You can’t spell ‘cheap’ without ‘AP’.” I’ve known a few AP lifers, and believe me, none of them were getting rich, and many were barely middle-class. All had working spouses.

There’s the issue of “fair use.” This it the legal doctrine that says I can quote a limited section from a piece of copyrighted material, in the interest of commenting on it. Fair use is what it is, but I doubt it covers the internet ritual sometimes called “fisking,” in which a blogger quotes a few paragraphs from an outside source, mocks, quotes a few more, mocks, and so on until the entire story is reproduced and the blogger feels very, very proud of himself.

This line in the sand may be a trial balloon. (Block that metaphor!) Or it may be a chicken coming home to roost. It’s certainly not popular. But the day is coming, people: News doesn’t assemble itself into nice 600-word chunks. People need to eat. The AP’s content is worth something, because it cost something to produce. Sooner or later, we have to figure this out. Or the entire blogosphere will be reduced to the equivalent of ham radio: Hi, this is Roberto in Mexico. Who and where are you?

So, then.

Read that Jon Carroll column. Give the San Francisco Chronicle the eyeballs. Me, I’m off to brainstorm six-minute gangster movie ideas.

Posted at 9:52 am in Media |

16 responses to “What’s it worth to you?”

  1. Kirk said on June 18, 2008 at 10:38 am

    By all means, free news for everyone. And what the heck? Let’s make it free gas and groceries, too. This Internet should turn the world into one big utopia.

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  2. Jason T. said on June 18, 2008 at 10:47 am

    Don’t worry, Kirk. The market will decide.

    (chortle, snort)

    There’s a big difference between (1.) writing a blog entry based on an AP story, and (2.) posting three paragraphs of an AP story with one sentence of your own just making a snotty comment.

    In the first case, you’re commenting on the news, which is allowed and even encouraged. In the second case, you’re stealing from the AP and its member newspapers.

    There are two many blogs that do (2.), but not (1.), and my impression is that AP is mostly after those people.

    You generally can’t reproduce someone else’s copyrighted content without permission or attribution. That’s not new to the Internet. You can’t do it in any other media, either.

    News is NOT free.

    However: The AP’s pricing structure is crazy.

    So is AP’s attempt to target people using as few as five words — I don’t think there’s a court in the United States that would let that stand. It would make it virtually impossible for anyone to write anything about any subject; you’d be almost forbidden from quoting any published source.

    The details of what AP wants to do are insane. But the principles aren’t.

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  3. baldheadeddork said on June 18, 2008 at 10:50 am

    The AP’s business model isn’t my problem, and they don’t have an exception from the Fair Use provisions of copyright law. Targeting small bloggers who can’t afford to legally defend themselves from this abuse of the copyright laws is deplorable. Your defense of the AP is largely correct, but they deserve all the shit they’re getting over this.

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  4. John Old said on June 18, 2008 at 10:53 am

    Merely a quibble, but this is not correct:

    “The AP’s content is worth something, because it cost something to produce.”

    The AP’s content is worth something because people are willing to pay to get it, not because of what it cost to produce.

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  5. Jim G said on June 18, 2008 at 11:14 am

    If the AP needs to charge for fair use in order to survive, it has a fundamental problem with its business model.

    Fair use is, by nature, legal use of copyrighted material that doesn’t require payment to—or permission from—the copyright holder. The AP is getting heat because it’s trying to charge for what is legally free, and because it’s attempting to define what “fair use” means to its own advantage. If the AP were merely telling blogs that there are limits to fair use, and explained fair use, well, fairly, then there wouldn’t be much problem. But that’s not what it’s doing. It’s trying to redefine what “fair use” is, and it doesn’t get to do that, any more than I can redefine “assault.”

    Fisking, as you describe it, probably isn’t fair use. Quoting 38 words from a much longer AP article may be. But the AP doesn’t get to define what fair use is.

    The other thing that bugs people, I think, is that the AP tried to use DMCA takedown notices to get these things removed. Because the DMCA favors copyright holders, and because it’s been a favorite tool of the MPAA, RIAA, and anyone claiming defamation, a lot of people get a nervous twitch any time the DMCA is waved around.

    Disclaimer: I am by no means a copyright expert.

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  6. brian stouder said on June 18, 2008 at 11:36 am

    brainstorm six-minute gangster movie ideas.


    gangsters in Sweden (or Minnesota) might make for an interesting twist on any of the cliches (plus you get to put a funny dialect onto hackneyed gangster-speak)

    gangster realizes he just won 212,000,000 dollars on the powerball, and then has to deal with (fill in the blank) his boss/his colleagues/his moll/the job at hand

    gangster gets involved in a road-rage incident (the rage of the other motorist) and then deals with it (the bridge could come in handy there)

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  7. Michael Roberts said on June 18, 2008 at 12:00 pm

    I’m not sure anybody but loudmouthed commenters is seriously arguing that journalism should be free of charge — arguably, food and medicine are more important if we’re going to be handing out free stuff — but the AP’s actions have really been egregious here. The Drudge Retort is the blog that set this thing off, and the AP was DMCA’ing them for 39-word quotes with links, which is what everybody does. How can you not? The AP is trying to redefine how the world works to preserve their relevance, and they just don’t get that right.

    Any case that goes to court risks a judgment of barratry, and they know it. So they try to bully and settle — it’s working for the RIAA, everybody knows that, right?

    Ultimately, we’re going to have to figure out how to pay journalists to do journalism. But the AP hasn’t found that solution, and I think people here pretty much agree on that, from what I’ve read over the few months I’ve been mostly lurking here.

    Anyway — journalism is dead, because the Weekly World News is going under, I hear. That really strikes at my heart. I saved one of their prediction pages, back in the 80’s, and found it about ten years later — after we’d all died from the comet, apparently.

    The WWN will be mourned.

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  8. alex said on June 18, 2008 at 12:17 pm

    ‘blogging is to today’s journalism what jazz once was to music. Jazz evolved in large part because of musicians who wanted to do covers without having to pay royalties. Not sure if any jazz musician ever made the fair use argument in court, however.

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  9. beb said on June 18, 2008 at 1:01 pm

    What Jim G. Said.

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  10. nancy said on June 18, 2008 at 1:12 pm

    I don’t think the AP needs to charge for fair use to survive. I think this is something else entirely — a discussion-starter, maybe. All wrangling of this sort is done in a series of shoves, and this is a hard, rude one. But I think they’re trying to make the point that, hey, we’re not doing this free, and you folks need to remember that when you get a little la-de-dah with your citations.

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  11. velvet goldmine said on June 18, 2008 at 1:16 pm

    I wonder -if maybe some of the bigger blog-hosting sites could do their own version of the co-op by proposing a “quoting” fee to the AP, which they pay to the AP and which would then give bloggers using those hosting sites automatic rights to quote from those sources. It might raise the price of having a blog slightly, but it’s still the idea of bulk-buying as a bloc to make the price affordable to the individuals.

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  12. LAMary said on June 18, 2008 at 1:21 pm

    With the Weekly World News gone, where do we go for Bat Boy news?

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  13. Sue said on June 18, 2008 at 1:35 pm

    RIP Weekly World News. Gentle creature that I am, my favorite WWW news story was about the fur coat that viciously attacked and killed its owner.

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  14. LAMary said on June 18, 2008 at 2:12 pm

    I actually bought a copy with the headline, “Mini Mermaid found in Tuna Sandwich.”

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  15. paddyo' said on June 18, 2008 at 2:29 pm

    I’m with you, Nance’ — “discussion-starter,” indeed.
    I’m one of those took-a-buyout ex-reporters (i.e., lucky ones, not laid off with nothing, like several friends and too many acquaintances) now toiling at less-interesting but no-less-gainful employment.
    This difficult trek from the dead-tree-pulp-rag-on-your-doorstep to the look-Ma-no-paper-no-ads-no-subscription Internet has barely begun, and a LOT of folks and papers are going to die and rot along that uncertain road. (Hmm, Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” ain’t a bad, if depressing comparison ….)The thing worth fighting over in the end –beyond AP’s rather rude and over-the-top definition of what’s NOT fair use . . . five words?! — is whether the system is going to figure out how to keep real reporters and real editors in the field, in the courthouse, in city hall, in your neighborhood, and in TOUCH with those who make news or who witness it, as the print journalism biz continues to circle the drain.
    I’d like to be the optimist and say common sense will win out and there WILL be staffs of journalists to keep doing this necessary work, but the doubts are serious, to say the least. I love blogs, but most bloggers aren’t journalists — and sure as hell aren’t reporters. Those who are, are the equivalent of, well, one reporter on one beat. But American journalism is losing scores of reporters every month.
    Maybe we’ll have to go through some no-news version of the Dark Ages in the coming years to get to the other side, some neo-Enlightenment Age for the re-dawn of journalism. As I said, I hope not, but have my doubts.

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  16. Jeff said on June 18, 2008 at 3:53 pm

    Gangsters, laundering money, buy a bridge, find the toll collections a much better racket, settle into mid-class respectabiggle, until they realize people are smuggling stuff in over said bridge, argue about morality of them busting lawbreakers, given how they got bridge, all go out for Royale with Cheese. Junior thug goes to toss trash off side of bridge, gets headsmack from his betters — “hey, show some respect.”

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