Saturday, 25 July 2009

Newspapers, news & internet – important developments – “DRM for news” & tracking copying of news stories

There have been some very interesting developments on the future of news and the internet this week.

Newspapers are increasingly losing money hand over fist…

The Economist published a story “All the news that’s free to print”, on the increasing plight of newspapers and the difficulty of finding a workable money-making business model in the age of free: could charities be the answer?

In a similar vein, see also this report of Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s thoughts on the future of newspapers in a recent public discussion, and The Economist’s article on the death of local news.

So – is “DRM for news” the answer?

A couple of days later, the US-based global news agency Associated Press announced that they were going to “protect news content from unauthorized use online” by creating a “news registry” to control the digital use of their content.

The Associated Press is used as a source of news stories for many newspapers and TV stations, including outside the US (for a fee, of course).

What’s the AP “news registry”?

This registry will “tag and track” all AP content which appears online on the internet, storing info to uniquely identify each bit of content that goes out, together with its terms of use.

A “built-in beacon” will keep track for the AP of how their content is being used on the Web, so that the registry can supply detailed metrics on content use, payment services and even enforcement support.

The news registry will support various payment models, such as “pay walls”.

At first it’ll just cover AP text content, then in early 2010 their members’ content, and ultimately they’ll track photos / images and videos too.

How does it work? Using hNews

See this AP graphic (source):

(Non-technologically minded readers may skip to “What Next?”.)

The news registry will be based on hNews, a microformat for news which was produced by AP with the Media Standards Trust (see the MST press release about the launch of the hNews microformat).

The MST is a UK charity to promote high standards in news and journalism, and one of its projects, with the AP, was a way to make it easier to capture and find information on news stories by encouraging news providers to put out their news items online in a standardised way – i.e. in a consistent “news” format.

The result was a non-proprietary open source news microformat hNews, which will enable any producer of news content to supply summary information for each news story on:

“• what the story is about,
• where it was written,
• who wrote it,
• where it was published,
• the news principles it adheres to (if any), and
• any usage rights associated with it.”

hNews is currently being trialled by open source news site openDemocracy.net.

The key here is the last bullet point above. In the case of AP, hNews will be used to “wrap” news items with information relating to the story (“metadata”), including a “digital permissions framework” whereby whoever publishes the story can set out how they want the content to be used on the internet (and also includes usage monitoring information, of course).

[ADDED 27 July 2009 further to comments made.] It is true that the hNews metadata is not DRM in the strict sense. Unlike in the case of DRM for music audio files, a publisher can't physically prevent others from copying their content, or indeed from thereafter deleting the metadata tags before re-publishing the copied content. That is why I surrounded the references to DRM in quotation marks, to indicate I felt it was akin to DRM, but not DRM as such. (Of course, it can be said that even DRM for music can be got round, albeit a lot less easily than just by deleting the microformats markup from the copied text.)

But what I was trying to get at was the purpose of it all, the sense that the AP, in what they are doing and based on what they are saying to various newspapers, are clearly wanting to control tightly and limit the use of their content by other people. I used "DRM" with its negative connotations because the AP may be viewed equally negatively, at least where they intend to use their tracking abilities in order to prevent even fair use / fair dealing of the copyrighted content - see below. The hNews microformat is far more than just a copyright licence container, it is generally good news if you'll forgive the pun, but like any other tool it will be for the user to decide how they wish to use it.

[ADDED 28 JULY] Now see an excellent article by Ars Technica which also can’t figure out how on earth hNews can be used to “wrap” and “protect” content in the all-encompassing way that the AP seem to be suggesting.

I.e., it can’t be: “one is struck by the thought that perhaps the AP has been snookered into believing that it's getting "DRM for news," when in reality it's simply using an open-source news metadata markup language with Creative Commons rights expression”.

The article also highlights contradictory statements by different AP officials as to their attitude towards people who copy even part of their content, and links to a wickedly funny graphic that makes fun of the AP scheme (warning: don’t click that link if you are anti swear words!)

[ADDED 30 JULY] Citizen Media Law Project have a good article on the saga, where the second half analyses the US legal issues and a number of relevant past cases e.g. “hot news”, including a couple involving AP itself.

What next?

The AP move seems to continue the new trend that’s emerging for newspapers to want to wrap their arms tightly around their content and not let anyone else near it (or even know it’s there, unless the reader goes direct to the news site concerned – see my report of European news publishers “Hamburg Declaration”, where they basically don’t want Google or other search engines to index the contents of their sites).

Maybe, following the music industry, the AP are going to sue the copyright pants off anyone who they find has reproduced AP content on their own web sites or blogs. Or use the threat of it, anyway, to stop people doing that – bloggers might well be worried about including even an extract or snippet of an AP news report, in case they find themselves being taken to court.

It’s certainly interesting and perhaps telling that in their FAQs about the news registry the AP felt it necessary to include a specific question / answer entitled “Is this aimed at Google? At bloggers?”. The AP say “not”!

As I mentioned in my report on the Hamburg Declaration (which a friend misread as the HumBug Declaration, bah humbug indeed!), I don’t think that’s the right way to go, in fact it’s counterproductive – news publishers shouldn’t be trying to stop search engines from indexing their sites or bloggers from quoting them, as long as it’s fair use / fair dealing and there’s a link to the original source.

As with search engines, a blogger who includes a short extract from a news item with a link to the original will surely drive more people to the site concerned; that’s more people who will see the publisher’s ads, so why would they want to put a stop to that?

I’ve not seen an example of the AP usage rights restriction markup yet – I notice that the AP news release about their news registry itself hasn’t been marked up using the hNews format, there’s no hRights (for the usage rights info) tag even! I’d like to see exactly what restrictions the AP will impose – just blanket “copyright AP”, I imagine.

Now if the AP use their new tracking abilities only to stop those who copy the whole of a news story in its entirety and use it wholesale as is, especially without attribution (crediting it to the AP) or a link back to the original, I don’t think many people would have a problem with that.

But I’m equally certain that many will think it problematic if the AP try to block people from using any of their content absolutely and completely, because that would go against the “fair use” (US) or “fair dealing” (UK etc) exceptions which allow limited copying of other people’s content in the interests of striking a fair balance between the rights of copyright holders / creators and the informational / cultural rights of society.

Unfortunately, it seems from a NY Times interview that AP are intent on stopping even a headline and a link from being shown on search or other sites. (UPDATE: see also the Financial Times article on this.)

Interestingly, the NY Times article says:

"Executives at some news organizations have said they are reluctant to test the Internet boundaries of fair use, for fear that the courts would rule against them."

There have already been huge debates over the past few years about digital rights management being used in the context of music, for instance, and how “take down notices” have been used to remove Web content where arguably the snippet included was covered by “fair use”. Now, text content joins the fray with a vengeance.

I suspect it will take some time for a new fair balance to be worked out.

But meanwhile, news publishers clearly want to make sure that they make money.

It may be that to avoid information overload and dross, some people at least are going to want “filters” that they trust, or some way to rate the quality of the information offered, and may be willing to pay a flat rate subscription fee for that, going forward.

Or it may be that free news with advertising is the only way most users will accept – but advertising money is falling away fast, especially in these economic climes, which perhaps may be an extra trigger for the AP move.

Who knows how it will all end? Will we, as Mr Rusbridger said, “get to the point where for the first time since the Enlightenment we have to live without verifiable sources of news, and people won’t realise what they’ve lost until it’s gone”?

Interesting times, indeed.

More information

Note: I’ve included above the AP diagram about their news registry as they linked to the graphic in their press release and I’d assumed that was to enable people to use it for illustrative purposes when reporting on the press release. (Much as some web sites have an online “press kit” of graphics for the media to use in news stories about their products or services.)

If I’m wrong, and the AP wish me to delete it as it’s obviously their copyright, then I’ll do so – please contact me (see the right sidebar) in that event.

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