Is the AP Adding DRM to the News? Not Yet.

Published on July 23, 2009
by Peter Kafka

Here’s the next step in the Associated Press’s attempt to adapt to the reality of the Web: It’s going to try to keep tabs on its stories, photos and videos via a “news registry that will tag and track all AP content online to assure compliance with terms of use.”

At first blush, the AP’s description of the program, found in this press release and this FAQ, sounds a lot like an attempt to implement digital rights management–a lock-and-key system–for the news. But at least in this iteration, that’s not the case. The AP is really talking about adding a layer of metadata to its copy, so it can see who’s using it, and where.

“Any time you talk about a tracking system, the thrust of [the commentary] is about enforcing copyright,” Jim Kennedy, the AP’s VP of strategic planning, told me this afternoon. “But what we hope is the outcome out of this is the ability to enable more licensed uses of  content. We want to keep the content open, we don’t want to keep it behind firewalls.”

If you want to see a benign description of the technology the AP intends to use, head to this site, developed by its U.K.-based partner Media Standards Trust. If you don’t have time for that, just imagine Wal-Mart (WMT) adding RFID chips to track its pallets as they move around the country.

Jim Kennedy tells me that the AP will have tests for the new system up and running by mid-November, and hopes to have it in place for all the copy it produces by the end of the year. And in 2010, it will make it available to the cooperative’s members, i.e., other news organizations.

You’ll hear griping about this from some corners, but all of it sounds fine to me–I don’t care how the AP tracks its product. But note that this tracking system only works when its used by someone who already has a business relationship with the AP.

Which means it doesn’t solve the two problems the AP started complaining about this spring: The  fact that bloggers and other nogoodniks are using AP copy without paying for it and the fact that Google (GOOG) isn’t paying the AP enough for the copy it does use.

On those fronts, the AP’s contract with Google expires at the end of this year, and my understanding is that renewal negotiations are moving slowly, at best. And the AP will continue to use Attributor’s tracking service to find unauthorized uses of its stuff on the Web.

And if the AP ever does try to shove its copy behind a firewall, then a tracking system would come in handy. But we’re not there yet.

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