April 7, 2009
A day after The Associated Press lashed out at online news aggregation sites for stealing its content, Google let it be known that it isn't the problem.
In a post on the company's Public Policy blog, Alexander Macgillivray, associate general counsel for products and intellectual property, offered a reminder that its news aggregation site, Google News, operates with the blessing of the AP and that Google is the hand that feeds online publishers. Google, he said, sends online news sites more than a billion clicks per month and its AdSense program helps them earn revenue from those clicks. "Our AdSense program pays out millions of dollars to newspapers that place ads on their sites, and our goal is that our interest-based advertising technology will help newspapers make more from each click we send them by serving better, more relevant ads to their readers to generate higher returns," he said. Macgillivray is responding to a statement by AP chairman Dean Singleton, who said on Monday that the AP intended to seek licensing agreements with online news portals and to pursue legal and legislative action against those unwilling to strike deals. "We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories," Singleton said. Singleton's fit of pique recalls the 1982 testimony of former Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti, who was seeking to ban the video cassette recorder as an instrument of copyright infringement. "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone," Valenti famously declared at a congressional hearing. Valenti's hyperbole didn't save the world from copyright infringement, though the VCR, and later DVD players, became a major source of revenue for Hollywood. The AP's war on change is likely to prove equally ineffective against content thieves. And it remains to be seen whether the Internet will provide a revenue stream to match the income that newspapers enjoyed when they monopolized their local markets for information. The AP's ongoing case against All Headline News, accused of unlawfully copying and altering AP news stories, has given the newspaper industry some hope because it survived a motion to dismiss. This suggests that AP's attempt to assert a "hot news" property right -- a quasi right recognized by the Supreme Court in a 1918 case -- to limit republication of breaking news stories may yet succeed. And if it does, it could curtail some abusive repurposing of original news reports. But Eric Goldman, associate professor of law at Santa Clara University School of Law, says it's not yet clear if the hot news doctrine is robust enough for the AP's purpose. "It's possible they have nothing in their quiver," he said. It may be that the AP's campaign to protect its content is intended primarily to make the case for the need for new laws to protect the publishing industry, as Singleton's promise of "legislative action" suggests. "If you wanted to lay the foundation for legal intervention, this is the way to do it," observed Goldman. "Congress is certainly aware that newspapers are in the throes of extinction." Yet even if new legislation is enacted to help the AP and its members defend against unlawful copying, that won't change the fact that news printed on paper is a product that fewer and fewer people want.
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