Attributor Helps Media Companies Crack Down on Web Scofflaws

    by Ira Basen
    March 24, 2010
    Attributor is making headway with large media companies

    Websites that scoop up content from the mainstream media without compensation are being put on notice: Pay up or risk being shut down.

    The warning comes from Attributor, a California-based company that monitors web content on behalf of magazine, newspaper and book publishers.

    This is about the economy of content and the ads that support it, not the content itself." - Attributor press release

    Earlier this month, Attributor announced a “new model for online content syndication” called FairShare Guardian. It’s not designed to remove content from the web (at least not right away); instead, it aims to stop sites from making money from content that doesn’t belong to them.


    According to Attributor, the problem is big and getting bigger. In one recent 30-day web scan, it identified more than 75,000 websites that featured 112,000 near-exact copies of unlicensed articles.

    Attributor insists it is not targeting news aggregators and other sites that use passages from articles to augment other content. It says it respects the well-established principle of “fair use.”

    The sites that Attributor is going after are those that consistently (more than ten times per month) include pages that contain more than 80 percent of unlicensed content with a minimum length of 125 words.


    An Offer They Can’t Refuse

    Once identified, offending sites receive a notice asking them if they have permission to use the article in question. If not, they will be asked “if they would like to enter into a discussion about fair compensation for syndicating the content.”

    If those discussions fail to come to a happy ending, Attributor will up the ante. It contacts advertising agencies and networks that serve the sites, as well as search engines and Internet service providers, and informs them of the copyright violations.


    Under the provisions of the U.S. Digital Millennium Copyright Act, search engines and hosting services are required to take down material they know to be in violation of copyright, although the offending site has the right to file a counter claim.

    Attributor is betting that, faced with the prospect of losing their advertising revenue, their search rank, and even their access to the web, most sites will decide that the company’s offer to negotiate a license fee is an offer they can’t refuse.

    Attributor insists their goal is not to restrict the public’s access to web content. “We’re motivated by the prospect of a thriving online content economy,” the company said in its release, “in which content is shared openly and spread freely, with an infrastructure that supports and fairly compensates content owners and creators…This is about the economy of content and the ads that support it, not the content itself. We trust this is abundantly clear.”

    Well, maybe.

    Most people would agree that, on a philosophical level, it is not a good thing to profit from someone’s labor without sharing some of that wealth with them. And if Attributor’s new content syndication model was only targeted at well-financed sites with healthy ad revenues, it would be hard to argue against its fundamental fairness.

    But the reality is that most sites have no steady revenue stream, and therefore no way of negotiating a license fee. The only option for them would be to remove the offending content from their sites.

    Content vs. Link Economy

    That does not sit well with those who believe that the “link economy” is the key to the web, and who reject any effort to limit access to its content.

    For them, Attributor’s plan to “manage” content smacks of the record industry’s misguided attempts to go after individuals who download music without paying for it, or the efforts by the Associated Press in 2008 to get a popular website to remove AP content because they thought the site was using too much of their material.

    Media commentator and journalism professor Jeff Jarvis, who also writes the popular blog BuzzMachine believes these disputes highlight the clash between the new “link economy” and the old “content economy.”

    According to Jarvis, links can be more valuable than content on the web. “Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money,” he wrote.

    By that logic, anyone who attempts to limit the dissemination of their content is being short-sighted. In the long run, there’s more money to be made by spreading your work as widely as possible across the web, than by restricting it to those who can afford to pay for its use.

    But most publishers aren’t ready to accept that idea. For them, the issue is still about regaining control over their online content, and receiving compensation from people who they believe are abusing the notion of fair use.

    About a dozen publishers, including Reuters, have signed up for a 90-day trial period with Attributor’s FairShare Guardian.

    Clearly, the debate over who gets to control content on the web will last far longer than that.

    Image of burglar via Attributor

    Ira Basen is a former senior producer at CBC’s Sunday Morning and Quirks and Quarks. He was involved in the creation of programs including The Inside Track (1985), This Morning (1997) and Workology (2001), as well as several special series, including Spin Cycles (2007) and News 2.0 (2009). His writing has appeared in Saturday Night, The Walrus, Maisonneuve and the Canadian Journal of Communication. He currently teaches at Ryerson University and the DeGroote School of Business at McMaster University. He is a co-author of the Canadian edition of The Book of Lists.


    This article was originally published on J-Source. J-Source and MediaShift have a content-sharing arrangement to broaden the audience of both sites.

    Tagged: ap attributor copyright copyright law dmca fair use fairshare guardian reuters

    13 responses to “Attributor Helps Media Companies Crack Down on Web Scofflaws”

    1. Ira,

      Thanks for the thoughtful piece. I work for Attributor and wanted to point out that many of the issues you raise are addressed by the Fair Syndication Consortium, an Attributor-led syndication initiative in which publishers receive a share of ad revenue on reuse of verified full copies of their work.

      I encourage you to review the site at fairsyndicaiton.org and especially the Fair Syndication Guidelines which embrace the value of the link economy.

      Please let me know if you have any questions either in the comments or directly via email.


    2. From what I read of the description of Attributor, they are not looking for links. They are looking for the wanton theft of content – the sort of copy and pasting of copyrighted content to provide free quality content to other sites who have no wish to pay for it. I’ve actually run into word for word copies of other people’s work on those bogus, barely designed sites that try to draw people by manipulating google. I don’t think any organization would reject a link from the internet. If possible, could you clarify?


    3. Ira,

      Thank you for your article, with due respect, though, I think that you’re misrepresenting what Attributor technology means to the link economy. Rather than stifling it, I think that Attributor will encourage the healthy growth of the link economy. When publishers can identify potential legitimate distribution channels via this technology and establish appropriate commercial terms for full use of their content, then it allows content to flow first to where it’s most valuable, rather than having to go through onerous licensing agreements just to get it on to your site. Nominal use of publishers’ content for personal sites is not the target – it’s sites that are trying to aggregate content for profit that are the targets. This will allow spam farms to be sorted out from legitimate potential partners and in the process of doing so make for a much more healthy link economy.

    4. Ira Basen says:

      Thank you Eileen, John, and Rich for your comments. I probably did not make my point as clearly as I should have in this post.
      If Attributor’s FairShare Guardian succeeds in putting the brakes on spammers, “black hat” SEO operators, and others who post “stolen” content for strictly commercial purposes, I think that is something we can all celebrate. And if it leads to more linking and less copying and pasting, as John and Rich suggest, then FairShare Guardian could indeed turn out to be a friend of the link economy, not a foe.
      Whether that will happen without also causing some collateral damage amongst smaller, primarily non-commercial sites remains to be seen. As we saw in the AP controversy, one person’s “fair use” is another person’s theft. And there will be those who will argue that 125 words is a pretty low threshold for Attributor’s warning system to kick in.
      Beyond that, I think this is perhaps just the latest installment in the debate between those who believe that “information wants to be free” on the web, and those, like Attributor’s clients, who want to protect the content that they have paid for. That debate will continue whether FairShare Guardian succeeds or not.

    5. cUNNINGLINGUIST says:

      What does it matter as long as the source of the material is cited? Ya gonna go after college kids next?

      See, these companies like “Attributor” (stupid name btw) convince media services that they are being somehow violated. Yet the actual media company, TIME AFTER TIME ends up taking the hit.

      Attributor and their ilk convince these media companies to cut off their noses to spite their face. They basically point out a problem where one never existed.

      Oh well, time will eventually show these narrowly focused simpletons that they were wrong.

    6. John Patton says:

      Nice I’ll never donate any money to pbs again. Try reporting real news. EG. how our government is run by international bankers.

    7. Johnny Five says:

      Total BS. The people create the news, not global conglomerates. If people want to discuss the BS other “highly valued self proclaimed news entities” put out, that is their right under the DCMA. Deal with it.

    8. Who Cares says:

      I always thought that PBS leaned Left. Now I know. Heil PBS, Heil Attributor. Long live internet censorship.

    9. Adolf says:

      Well Well Well und ich dachte, die NAZI Weg des Lebens war tot und begraben, sehr traurig zu sehen. Hitler wäre sehr glücklich, und nicht zu vergessen die Bilderberger.

    10. compaq says:

      I hope every suit you go against Attributor you are countered sued… plain and simple you are thugs… go read the DCMA; now if you want to lobby and change our laws so corporations run our freedoms, then that is your right! God bless the decline of America.

    11. Who Cares says:

      @Adolf, you are correct….Hitler would be thrilled with this country.

    12. Robert46 says:

      Just maybe every day people that make their own youtube video’s of news making events should sue the big media companies because after all they too use other every day people’s self produced content to further their viewer and readership traffic! Or maybe bloggers should charge the major media companies for the self produced content they put on the wed. After all it’s every day people that are doing the REAL journalism and not getting paid a dime for their efforts. The the so-called major media scoop up every day people’s work and use it to their commercial financial benefit.

      Far as I can tell what attributor does is send threatening letters to website owners to extort money from them.
      Isn’t there a law against such a thing.

      I blogg but I don’t even post any content or links of major media outlets because why should I fund the major so-called media and their Intellectually lazy and dishonest half *** work! with web traffic

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