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Wolfe's Den: AP Vs. Google Proves Web No Longer Wants To Be So Free

Online reuse has long been governed by a culture in which China is only slightly more of an intellectual-property outlier than your average 13-year-old Limewire music-file thief. But newspapers are now mad as heck (also, broke) and they're not gonna take it anymore.
So where does Google fit into all this? Pretty surely, Google is the online equivalent of the bank that's so big it can do as it wants. Sure, Google has occasionally pushed the boundaries of fair use. Though in legal fairness, fair use is not a codified (small "c") concept, notwithstanding the fact that it is indeed in the U.S. Code. Rather, what does or does not constitute fair use rests on the body of legal precedent. As the famous Gerald Ford case made clear, you can't determine whether something is fair use or not until you litigate it.

It's also true that Google has proceeded, Pac-Man Like, to gobble up every online data set that's ripe for the taking. (Google Book Search is currently embroiled in battle not dissimilar to the AP challenge.)

Nevertheless, Google got where it is by not by predation, but by filling one great big honking vacuum.

You can't blame them there. Where were all the now-complaining publishing executives when they had a chance to proactively do something about their soon-to-be superfluous industry? The "Web wants to be free" ethos didn't emerge overnight. If you date the emergence of serious content on the Web to 1994, then print had good 12 years to get its act together. Heck, Google wasn't even a force in the early days (it wasn't founded until September, 1998); the primo search engine back then was Alta Vista.

So what it amounts to is that the dead-tree businesses mostly squandered the 1990s, and now they want their cheese back. That's not going to happen. At the same time, it's equally unctuous to have to read the chatter in the blogosphere on how it's all about "adding value." Newspapers, and the AP, do have a point when they point out that one day (soon), if they're unable to pay reporters, there won't be any stories left for bloggers to point to, comment on, "add value to," or otherwise glom off of.

Oh, I forgot. We're all "reporters" now. Spare me. Even most reporters get worn down by the grind after a while. Only people who don't understand what real reporting involves would float such a non-starter of a concept. Perhaps, in the interregnum until a new Web revenue model emerges, good content will be created mostly by new grads, or retired writers. Or possibly it will be outsourced to near-native English speakers reporting on Pasadena City Council meetings from overseas. Who knows?

What I can predict is that, driven by the availability of good open-source content management systems, blogs will evolve from today's A-list-driven Web sideshow into the standard presentation format for most Web sites. (And then blogs won't be blogs, they'll just be. . . sites. Or, all sites will be blogs. The canonical example here of course is Huffington Post. Is it a "site" or a blog? Answer: Yes.)

I'll close with the observation that it seems that, regardless of what newspapers or the AP do at this point, the old game where analog bucks funded the creation of gobs of content, is drawing to a close. At the same time, the explosive growth curve for search-driven ad revenues also appears to be at an end.

Perhaps the legacy folk who are all of a sudden so online-aware can figure out how to put the horse back in the barn (an apt analogy when you're talking newspapers), just like cable TV was able to up-end over-the-air broadcasting. Perhaps Google can learn to create "real" content for no money down. More likely, to paraphrase the immortal words of Rodney King, we'll just have to figure out a way -- one that's as yet apparent to no one -- to all get along.

What's your take? Let me know, by leaving a comment below or e-mailing me directly at [email protected].

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Alex Wolfe is editor-in-chief of InformationWeek.com.