Bloggers show power and organizational muscle with AP boycott

BlogHer Original Post

In a stunning demonstration of the power shift between traditional and mainstream press, the Associated Press announced that it will develop new policies for fair use of its content by non-members after bloggers responded to a takedown notice to one blogger with a boycott that spread like wildfire over the weekend.

Here's how it happened. On June 10, AP sent a takedown request to Rogers Cadenhead, editor of the Drudge Retort alleging that Cadenhead's links to seven AP stories constituted copyright infringement. Cadenhead explains:

An AP attorney filed six Digital Millenium Copyright Act takedown requests this week demanding the removal of blog entries and another for a user comment.

The Retort is a community site comparable in function to Digg, Reddit and Mixx. The 8,500 users of the site contribute blog entries of their own authorship and links to interesting news articles on the web, which appear immediately on the site. None of the six entries challenged by AP, which include two that I posted myself, contains the full text of an AP story or anything close to it. They reproduce short excerpts of the articles -- ranging in length from 33 to 79 words -- and five of the six have a user-created headline.

Liza Sabater at Culturekitchen tells what happened next:

Rogers sent an email to mailing list in which about 150 of the top progressive and liberal in the country. Some of us commented to Rogers' plight with both replies to his email and a blog post. One of the people in the list, Cernig of Newshogger, exasperated wrote back that it was time to boycott them. That prompted Richard Kastelein of Atlantic Free Press to create a website, unAssociated Press, that would be the focus of the boycott along with buttons and banners to spread the news on all our sites.

unAssociated Press logo

What's more remarkable is that boycott participants run the gamut from heavily-frequented sites such as Jeff Jarvis' Buzzmachine and Tech Crunch to a host of sites of varied political persuasions and traffic stats.

In today's New York Times, AP execs admitted they had been "heavy-handed" and said they would be meeting with representatives of the Media Bloggers Association to set fair use guidelines for bloggers. The "fair use" doctrine allows the appropriation of small portions of a copyrighted work for such purposes as review and comment. One of the challenges of the current digital age is that definitions of fair use have become increasingly murky and contested. MBA is a non-partisan organization that descibes its mission as "promoting, protecting and educating its members. It has negotiated access for bloggers unaffilated with news organizations to venues such as the federal courts and presidential debates.

But Cernig at NewsHogg says the AP's mea culpa is really just "spin:"

[N]othing has actually changed on the ground - the ridiculous DMCA takedowns for excerpts of 40 to 70 words that began the whole affair are still in force.

Libby at The Impolitic thinks this whole mess has hurt AP more than it hurts bloggers:

Frankly, I think content quality has already improved with people sourcing from the smaller services that write better stories. For myself, I'm going to be avoiding AP from now on, even if they do back off.

One of the ironies of this entire dispute is that AP is a cooperative that pools and shares content by members, in addition to the content it generates for its subscribers. In other words, even though it was created when the telegraph was the high-tech means of news distribution, it functions in ways that are analogous to sites such as Drudge Retort and even group blog sites such as BlogHer. Not only that, but in the 19th century, the AP fought it's own version of the net neutrality battle -- it had to fight Western Union for the right to have its own telegraph wires. Now, as AP sees its business model threatened by the rise of social media, it is flailing to find ways of ensuring its survival.

Culture critics such as Liza Sabater and Henry Jenkins are absolutely right that that the appropriation and recontextualizing essential to today's remix culture have always existed, it's also true that until now, those who provided the means of production of that art have, until now, had the ability to control the commercial use of their intellectual product. It will take a while before we really understand the full implications of this moment, but the dance between the AP and the bloggers who have taken them on could point the way to the future.

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