I left the Pacific Northwest Newspaper Association Summit of newspaper publishers and ad managers Thursday just as two executives from the Associated Press were winding up their presentation on the new AP News Registry.

The new initiative, announced in July, contains two key components:

• All AP stories will be released online wrapped in a new microsoformat that includes rights info, who created it, etc.

• The wrapper also will carry a built-in “digital beacon,” or tracker, to monitor use of the content by others to track usage and compliance. (As I understand this, the content is not encrypted but carries a lightweight bug technology.)

As a social media consultant and journalist who spoke at the summit just an hour earlier, I asked whether the dialogue and AP’s plans were public information, and Kevin Walsh, AP’s Kevin Walsh, Vice President of Marketing, responded, “It is now.”

AP’s plans were met with the predicable negative reaction in the blogosphere (see, for example, the comments at bottom of this article). But AP should be credited with its transparency during this process, and from what I heard at the summit, its plans make a lot of sense. Thousands of sites are unfairly piggybacking off the work of journalists, and if newspapers and news organizations like the AP are to survive, there has to be a mechanism for compensation.

As an internal AP document titled Protect, Point, Pay – An Associated Press Plan for Reclaiming News put it: “The evidence is everywhere: original news content is being scraped, syndicated and monetized without fair compensation to those who produce report and verify it.”

Fair use won’t be easy to define

It’s a topic I have some familiarity with, having written Darknet and reported on Hollywood studios and media companies’ reluctance to embrace their digital future. At the time I wrote the book, there was widespread music file sharing (there still is) but also an increasing recognition that the original Napster was misguided and the music industry needed to devise legitimate forms of compensation for the artists. (Apple’s iTunes and Rhapsody are among the companies still trying to create a frictionless business model.)

My view on the new AP initiative is similar: Some reuse of AP’s content is socially and legally acceptable, but there needs to be limits. What will matter, in the end, is how this plan will be carried out by AP and the cooperative’s members. If they go too far and claim “all rights reserved” around the first two sentences of every AP article, the blowback will be enormous. Fair use exists, and in the past the AP has paid too little heed to those concerns — even though AP reporters rely on the same fair use doctrine in their reports nearly every day. (For example, I didn’t get the AP’s permission to use the graphic at the top of this post.)

Todd B. Martin, AP’s Vice President, Technology Development, reassured the publishers in the room that the intent of the news registry isn’t to go after every blogger who borrows a snippet of an AP news story.

Instead, Martin said, “We’re not going to stop a blogger from cut and pasting an article. But we are giving you visibility into the 20,000 other domains where your content appeared and the top users and where it was monetized. So you can get a list of the top 100 [infringing] sites with over 100,000 views, and then facilitate business development opportunities” with the sites in question. The registry, Martin said, would help create new business opportunities and products and also buttress more rigorous legal enforcement of the AP’s intellectual property.

That business development, presumably, would go something like this: You’re taking our content without authorization. Sign up for a subscription, remove it, or face the legal consequences. It sounds as though AP will be creating a new category of subscribers that falls short of a standard membership subscription.

I asked the first question: When a blogger or third-party publisher reproduces part of an AP story on his own site or blog, how much borrowing is permissible? What is the cutoff point between fair use and a trigger mechanism that requires a subscription payment?

“We’re focused on removing the ambiguity around the use of our content,” Martin responded. “The registry will help you decide whether that use is permitted or whether it’s a business development opportunity” requiring payment.

stealometer leans steal again
stealometer leans steal again

Which, of course, doesn’t answer the question at all. For a simple reason: There is no bright line. But I do agree with AP on this: There is a line at some point. It comes down to context: reasonable lightweight borrowing vs. patterns of appropriating reportage and photographs for profit. It appears AP and its members will take things on a case-by-case basis until some conventions and rules of the road are established.

Recently in his MediaShift blog, Mark Glaser did a brilliant job of exposing the unscrupulous practice of sites like Gawker and site scrapers that reuse copyrighted material without authorization, payment or transforming it in a significant way: Using the ‘Steal-O-Meter’ to Gauge if Stories Steal or Promote.

It’s a conversation we’ve avoided for a long, long time.