AP needs to understand how the web works


Hey, folks. It's good to be back after a three-week hiatus. While I was gone, AP continued its quixotic attack on linking. To be honest, I find this debate tiresome, but AP insists on bringing it up every few months and somebody needs to set them straight. I find it hard to believe that in 2009, there are still those in the news business who insist that links are evil, sucking the profits from the steely fingers of dying newspapers, but this attitude, this insistence of maintaining total control of content shows a complete lack of understanding about how the web works.

The roots

Let's start with the very birth of the World Wide Web. If you watch this video of Tim Berners-Lee, the man who invented the World Wide Web, he explains it came about as a way to share documents. It was, in his words, about a community of people coming together to build the web. You see, the two key concepts there are community and sharing. Without them, the web would never have developed. It didn't have anything to do with command and control and locking your content behind walled gardens. It was a way to build links between content.

Aggregation is a source of aggravation

If you read this piece, in the excellent Niemen Journalism Lab blog, it's clear the AP is afraid of aggregators who link to their content. They see them as using AP content without compensation rather than as ways to drive traffic to its website for free. Yet, even AP itself, seems unclear what that means. In fact, a great example is a blogger named Andy Baio, who started a site called Associated Repress using AP's RSS feeds. Baio started the site as a protest, what he calls "A tribute to 'fair use' and the AP's misguided crusade against the hyperlink." When Niemen blogger, Zachary M. Seward asks about this specific blog, the AP spokesperson seems fine with it so long as the site doesn't make money:

"I described [Baio's] site to Kasi, who told me: 'I think that the person doing that: wonderful. We celebrate free speech.' But what if that site carried ads? Could the use of AP headlines and ledes ever amount to copyright infringement? 'At some point,' Kasi said, 'the variables start to come together that, absolutely, it would be actionable.'"

Yet AP chief executive Tom Curley suggested in a New York Times' article last month that any use, even a simple headline and link could, in AP's view constitute a copyright violation. None of this even takes into account fair use, which has been protected and allowed by courts long before the World Wide Web came along.

Links are good

What's truly unbelievable (and even a little pathetic) about this whole discussion is that after all these years, AP still doesn't understand the power of the web, and has so little creative thinking as an organization. It can't come up with a single way, except for threats of litigation, to make its model work. Since the beginning of the web, the fear has persisted (even among highly knowledgeable users) that if you link to another site, you lose the reader. They will be off to the next thing and will never come back, but readers will always come back to you if they like your content. And AP takes this fear even further. They are afraid that the link itself (to their own content) will siphon its profits, which is just completely twisted.

What AP fails to understand is that links drive traffic to their site. Every day I scan headlines in my RSS Reader, on Twitter and countless other sources. If I didn't have access to these links, I wouldn't know the content even existed. The linking culture provides a way to get others to trumpet your articles for you, and if that headline comes from a powerful search site, such as Google, all the better, because it means more traffic. This works for AP, the New York Times, FierceContentManagement and everyone else.

AP (and others) can complain and shake their fists all they want, but in the end, if they don't understand the way the web works and make no attempt to accept even the most basic concepts of web use, such as linking, they are doomed to die a slow and painful death. This isn't 1995, it's 2009 and AP has to find a way to change or get out of the way. - Ron