Is the AP's NewsRight a Carrot or a Stick?

The Associated Press newswire service has just launched a “news registry” and licensing service it calls NewsRight, together with a group of traditional media chains and outlets such as Hearst Newspapers and the New York Times The AP says the new entity—which it has spent more than three years developing—is primarily intended to help members track, then license, their content to websites and news services. But the AP’s long history of antagonism toward the digital news ecosystem raises questions about whether the registry is designed to be a carrot or a club with which to beat aggregators it believes are “stealing” its content.

The fact that the new entity happens to be headed by a lawyer—former ABC News head David Westin—has added to the suspicion that NewsRight is intended to be a lawsuit machine, but the new chief executive officer says the purpose of the company is mainly to help members see where their content is being used, then open the door to licensing. “We’re not a litigation shop,” Westin told PaidContent. NewsRight uses the AP’s “Beacon” technology to track content, which wraps all its published material in a digital envelope that can be tracked, even when only small pieces of the content are used.

While NewsRight itself may not be designed to threaten or file legal claims against aggregators, one of the driving forces behind the agency is the sense on the part of AP and other members that their content is being stolen by news-filtering services such as Meltwater (a kind of digital news-clipping service used by companies) and news aggregators such as The Huffington Post, which are routinely accused of “over-aggregating” content from other sources. Westin said NewsRight believes much of the growth in demand for online news is “to the benefit of companies who themselves are not hiring reporters, or at least not very many reporters. They are relying on content taken from websites of the traditional news providers.”

The Associated Press has spent years fighting the Web and the way it has disrupted the traditional ecosystem that the newswire relied on for decades. The AP first started talking about a news registry as far back as 2008. It was clear then that its main purpose would be to crack down on anyone using even small portions of the company’s content. One of its earliest targets was Google News, which the AP accused of stealing content from members—even though the use of short excerpts with links to the original is arguably covered by the “fair use” clause in U.S. copyright law.

Work With News Ecosystem—or Sue?

The AP threatened to sue Google in 2007. After several years of wrangling over the issue, the two sides in 2010 signed an agreement whose terms remain unknown. Meanwhile, the AP continued to threaten other websites over the use of its content and tried to convince sites to pay exorbitant fees for even small amounts of text or the use of an AP headline. That caused great controversy. (If you want to go back even further, the AP has been fighting aggregators since 1918, when it sued and won a so-called “hot news” judgment against a rival newswire.)

The fundamental problem the AP faces is the same as that faced by virtually every traditional news entity as a result of the “democratization of distribution”—namely, how can it control the flow of content as it used to? The short answer is it can’t, which has disrupted the way the AP functions in more ways than one. Twitter and other tools have taken on many of the aspects of a real-time newswire. The AP faces other competitors as well, including such upstarts as NewsCred, which has built a content-licensing system, and even Google itself.

News entities such as the Guardian have tried to take advantage of the new ecosystem of news by turning themselves into open platforms—but others like the AP seem determined to reinvent the monopolies they used to have before the Web existed. For NewsRight, the big test will come when it offers onerous licensing terms to an aggregator: What happens when an organization such as The Huffington Post says “no, thank you?” That’s when it will become obvious how much of NewsRight’s business model is based on carrots—and how much of it is about waving a big stick.

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