Associated Press going too far?

Recently the widely used wire service has started charging for excerpts using more than 4 words. Under fair use rules and established copyright law authors of editorials and reviews are ordinarily permitted to excerpt from a work without permission from the copyright holder as long as the source is properly identified.

In a NY Times article dated July 23, 2009:

“In an interview, [AP’s chief executive Tom Curley] specifically cited references that include a headline and a link to an article, a standard practice of search engines like Google, Bing and Yahoo, news aggregators and blogs.” —Richard Perez-Pena, NY Times

AP has been on a road to protect its content and revenue stream for a while taking what some see as overreaching measures. Last year, the Drudge Report’s liberal opposite Drudge Retort was at the center of a publicized dispute (about the case) over content posted by its contributors. AP’s legal eagles have been reportedly going after a number of sites and bloggers, and a form of automated DRM (AP’s press release on the subject) is also being rolled out.

In the last couple of days, many are pointing to James Grimmelmann’s experiment where he was charged to license words clearly in the public domain (Grimmelmann’s blog post). Mr. Grimmelmann was refunded his money and the license rescinded having no implications on his use of them given that the words – a quote by Thomas Jefferson – are already in public domain. AP likened the experiment to running an item you’ve already paid for through a self-serve grocery store checkout station.

The iCopyright system which Grimmelmann used to license the content runs on the honor system, and according to others licensees can copy paste text into it that they intend to use. The system is relatively simple and apparently at least in this case did not check the public domain status of the content. Given that we are dealing with a system that already provides the user some discretion about what’s entered, is the Grimmelmann story a minor procedural flaw and not really a big deal?

As AP points out, reporters should be paid for their work. Why should bloggers – especially those few who turn a profit – be freeloading on a hardworking industry that requires real people and real infrastructure on the ground asking questions and going places. Furthermore, in today’s era of sound bytes, sometimes just a few words tell the story.

Traditional media’s revenue sources and business models are on shaky ground with print – a big part of AP’s customer base – in the most precarious position. When content can be syndicated, rehashed or even originated by so many people, will centralized sources large enough to generate real advertising and subscriber revenue survive? Can AP, Reuters, CNN or any other large privately funded news organization survive in the coming climate?

Some say what’s most alarming about the situation is the notion that fair use is per policy being thrown out altogether which could set a dangerous precedent.