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AP picks a fight with bloggers

June 16, 2008 |  6:07 pm
Drudge Retort

The Associated Press is trying to back out of an Old Media-New Media fight that it didn’t quite mean to pick.

The 162-year-old news service will sit down with representatives of a bloggers group Thursday to devise guidelines allowing Internet commentators to use excerpts from AP stories and broadcasts.

The AP provoked outrage in the blogosphere last week when it issued a blunt legal demand that the Drudge Retort, a small online news and commentary site, remove seven posts containing snippets –- all less than 80 words long –- from AP stories. The website, named in satirical homage to the much-larger Drudge Report news site, promptly complied with the demand but started the furor by calling attention to the incident in an online posting.

The traditional news media have long complained about freeloading by Internet sites that republish their articles without permission or compensation, and the AP is under pressure from its owner-members — 1,500 U.S. daily newspapers — to step up the fight against copyright infringement. The issue has heated up recently as newspapers have slashed staff and shrunk the size of their papers amid a severe advertising downturn.

But bloggers regard the use of news excerpts to stimulate online discussion as a long-established and constitutionally protected practice known as fair use. They reacted to the AP’s demand as if it had taken a hammer to a daisy.

TechCrunch, the popular Silicon Valley website, announced it would boycott AP stories until the organization reversed its stand. Another blogger, Jeff Jarvis of BuzzMachine, called on his peers to reprint AP articles at length in a Web-wide show of defiance.

Even Jim Kennedy, AP vice president for strategic planning, acknowledged that the legal tactic was heavy handed.

Faced with the withering reaction from the blogosphere, Kennedy and other AP executives ...

... met on Friday and decided that “we were maybe pressing this too far,” he said. “Our gut feeling was that we needed to rethink it.”

He said it wasn’t the AP’s intention to squelch legitimate commentary.

The Drudge Retort, begun years ago as a liberal reaction to the conservative Drudge Report, has since morphed into a Web community with about 8,500 users who post comments in reaction to news events, according to owner Rogers Cadenhead.

He said he was “dumbfounded” to be threatened with a court battle over excerpts that he thought fell clearly within the parameters of fair use, an established legal principle allowing scholars, book reviewers and the like to quote from copyrighted material.

“If their concerns go all the way down to 35-word excepts, I don’t see how fair use is possible,” Cadenhead said of the AP.

Kennedy said the issue isn’t the length of the excerpts but the purpose for which they’re being used. He said he wanted to develop guidelines that would help distinguish between bloggers using news snippets as launch pads for discussion and “sites that systematically strip AP content and reuse it without permission,” sometimes selling advertising around it.

Kennedy has set a Thursday meting with Robert Cox, president of the Media Bloggers Assn., to try to develop what he called a set of “best practices” to accommodate commentators while protecting the AP’s intellectual property.

Cox, who said his organization has resolved previous disputes between bloggers and such news outlets as CNN and the New York Times, said he hopes the AP would “communicate in a less heavy-handed way what it is they’re upset about and what they’re willing to accept.”

-- Thomas S. Mulligan

Mulligan, a Times staff writer, covers media from New York

Screen shot courtesy of Drudge Retort

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