AP Tries to Control Blogs, Fails

The Associated Press took a grandiose Facebook-style faceplant last week when it attempted to impose strict guidelines on the blogosphere.

Now, just like Facebook's initial unapologetic enthusiasm for its privacy-violating Beacon program followed by Facebook's effusive apology for its privacy-violating Beacon program, the AP is bowing to the will of the angry Internet masses and backing off. Sort of.

As part of the big mea culpa, the AP's Jim Kennedy pledged to meet this week with Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Association (which is, you know, kind of like meeting with the United Organization of Anarchists), and work up some sort of AP/Blogger Accord.

So mark the date kids, this is yet another moment in Internet history we'll someday look back on in Wikipedia when we scratch our heads and try and figure out how cyber rights and responsibilities got to wherever this whole World Wide Web thing is going.

It all started with a letter from AP (a national news organization that pays the rent by selling news reports to other media, including msnbc.com) to the Drudge Retort (a news aggregator site named in parody for the muckraking site, Drudge Report). AP requested that the Drudge Retort remove seven posts featuring quotes from AP stories. From there, it blew up into yet another full-on Internet conflict between Big Business and the Little Guys.

To citizen journalists out in cyberspace, AP's proclamation against one little aggregate site (much smaller in comparison to, say, Digg, etc.) rang like a shot across the bow of fair use, especially after an AP spokesperson announced that, from here on out, the news agency would take action against blogs, "when we feel the use is more reproduction than reference, or when others are encouraged to cut and paste."

After some sort of emergency executive meeting, AP's Kennedy spoke to Saul Hansell of The New York Times. In what read like an effort to appease the enraged cyber mob, Kennedy admitted to the "heavy handed" verbiage in its Drudge Retort missive and assured all that better guidelines would likely result from The Big Blogging Meet-up this week.

(Meanwhile, according to The New York Times, the initial Drudge Retort cease and desist stands.)

It's probably safe to assume that, diplomacy aside, the AP still feels pretty good about instituting some sort of restrictions on said cutting and pasting. So we've got a few interesting things in play here. On the one hand, there's the sensible legal condition summed up by Hansell in the Times article: "One important legal test of whether an excerpt exceeds fair use is if it causes financial harm to the copyright owner."

That said, it's probably also safe to assume that thousands of newspaper and broadcast outlets won't someday soon stop paying their AP bill because everyone's getting AP excerpts for free from The Johnson Family Home Page Dot Net. But you know what happens when we ass-u-me. Because, on the other hand, we've got a bunch of lunk-headed blog readers who don't click links and do their own reading.

Note the emergence of "RTFA" (Short for Read The F- - king Article) as a standard abbreviation on Digg. As a whole lot of blog enthusiasts on Digg understand, a whole lot of other blog enthusiasts only read the headline, not the "expletive-deleted article" and then make a bunch of brain-dead comments that irritate the blog readers who do, in fact, read for comprehension. Flaming ensues.

So the question becomes, do the blog enthusiasts who fail to read for comprehension constitute a group that would otherwise go to AP? AP could argue that even summarizing, rather than quoting, an article amounts to enough for these jackasses that they no longer feel the need to go read the AP article, thus diminishing the AP product's value to the media outlet paying the AP bill.

However, those alleged cutting-and-pasting bloggers could equally point out that their time-pressed audience is all the more likely to visit the AP when a blogger puts the link in front of them. If reading source materials is so inimical to this audience, those who comprise this audience probably not going to go to seek out the original AP product themselves. Even if their likelihood of visiting the AP is increased only because they might click on a link by mistake, that's extra cash in AP's pants pocket.

And, to be fair, part of why people read opinion blogs is so that we don't need to do all that reading and digesting ourselves. There are, after all, only so many hours in the day.