Did the AP just declare war on news aggregators?

Like virtually every other traditional news entity, the Associated Press newswire has been under pressure for some time from digital media. But this disruption has been even worse for AP and its ilk because they are primarily distributors, and the web has fundamentally democratized content distribution. Instead of trying to find ways to adapt to this new reality, however, the AP seems determined to fight it with everything it has, including lawsuits: On Tuesday, the service launched a lawsuit in New York against a digital news-aggregation service called Meltwater, accusing the service of copyright infringement and “free riding” on its content. The AP says it isn’t going after news aggregators as a whole, but this is clearly meant as a show of force.

Meltwater — which was founded in Oslo, Norway, in 2001 — provides an electronic version of the old-style news clipping services that companies used to use as a way of keeping up on what was being said about them or their products in the media. Instead of a pile of clipped articles from printed newspapers and magazines, Meltwater gives company executives an electronic news-filtering service in return for monthly subscription fees, which summarizes content not just from the AP but from hundreds of other public sources. But that is not the way the Associated Press sees it. According to a statement from CEO Tom Curley, it is a parasite that leeches off the newswire’s content illegally:

Meltwater News is a parasitic distribution service that competes directly with traditional news sources without paying license fees to cover the costs of creating those stories. It has a significant negative impact on the ability of AP to continue providing the high-quality news reports on which the public relies.

The AP is determined to fight rather than adapt

It is interesting that Curley’s argument seems to rest in part on the idea that the Associated Press is providing some kind of public service that is important to democracy, etc. when in reality, the newswire is simply a content-distribution service that is owned by its member newspapers (and produces some of its own content as well). As media theorist Clay Shirky noted in an essay in 2010, this kind of distribution function seems woefully inadequate and possibly even unnecessary in the age of the web. “Syndication makes little sense in a world with URLs,” as Shirky described it.

The AP seems determined to fight this reality, however, and to do whatever it can to maintain control over its content and the scarcity that is at the core of its business model — just as newspaper owners like Rupert Murdoch (s nws) are trying to do with paywalls and other gates around their information. In addition to trying to compel companies like Meltwater to pay licensing fees for using its content (as it has with Google News and others), it is trying hard to keep its journalists from reporting news on Twitter, just as Sky News and other traditional providers are.

The Associated Press says that it isn’t planning to go after news aggregators as a whole and that it isn’t against services or sites that provide headlines and links to AP content. General counsel Laura Malone said in the statement issued by the newswire that Meltwater “is not a typical news aggregator” because it is a closed system that subscribers must pay a fee to access — and therefore not “public” in the sense that Google News is — and that the Norwegian company also provides “lengthier and more systematic excerpts” from AP articles (it also maintains archives of past AP content, the newswire complaint alleges).

To the AP, every news aggregator is a potential threat

When you combine this latest lawsuit with the fact that the AP has forced Google News (s goog) and others to license its content, however — even just to provide an excerpt of a few sentences and a headline — it seems fairly obvious that the newswire either wants aggregators to pay for the right to use any of its content or they will face a lawsuit. And as Jeff Roberts of our sister site paidContent points out, the Meltwater case is actually a throwback to a landmark case from 1918, when the Associated Press won what the courts called a “hot news misappropriation” case against a now-defunct competitor that was “free riding” on the AP’s business model. The AP statement against Meltwater makes the connection explicit:

Meltwater free-rides on AP’s significant investments in gathering and reporting news. In short, Meltwater earns substantial fees for redistributing premium news content, while bearing none of the costs associated with creating that content.

The Associated Press may be trying to create the impression that its dispute with Meltwater is a special case and doesn’t apply to other news aggregators, but its argument about excerpting and free riding could just as easily apply to any site or service that bundles headlines and links — or potentially even to sites like the Huffington Post (s aol), which has been widely criticized by traditional media outlets for “over-aggregation” of their stories. And the AP may also be encouraged by a recent decision in the UK, where Meltwater and other services have to pay mandatory licensing fees for any content that they aggregate from newspapers or other traditional outlets.

As I have tried to describe before, I think the AP’s attitude is fundamentally futile, whether it involves stopping reporters from breaking news on Twitter or suing those who reuse or aggregate its content. It is clear that the newswire is threatened by the web and the democratization of distribution, but putting up walls and filing lawsuits is a waste of time and money — and it is not even obvious that the AP’s “hot news” claim has a hope of succeeding, since U.S. copyright law is so different from that of the UK. All it does is make the AP seem like a frightened, cornered animal.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users World Economic Forum and Rochelle Hartman