24 Jul 2009
The Associated Press has announced that it is setting up a registry of its content - articles, images and video. The purpose is to monitor use of the material, track infringements of its rights and take enforcement action against those who use material without permission.
I don't know whether to feel pleased or worried about this.
On the face of it, it all sounds very reasonable. If it works, it might be one step towards reducing the rampant piracy of content on the web. Not only will it provide a means of discovering misuse (and recovering fees), it may also raise awareness that it's dangerous to rip-off content. It may finally get through to that low-wattage portion of the online community that still doesn't understand intellectual property.
There is one part of the announcement, though, that has me concerned. In the PDN news item, it says:
The AP says it will fund the registry though 2010, then expects it to become financially self-sustaining. The AP didn’t say how the system will generate revenue, but presumably it would collect fees from either the content owners, licensees or both.
This isn't all that different from the image registries that would be established under proposed orphan works legislation. In the case of orphan works, the suggestion is that anyone wanting to use an image (or other material) where the copyright ownership isn't obvious must make a reasonable effort to establish whether it is still copyright protected. What constitutes 'reasonable' is an issue that will, I suspect, prevent lawyers from starving. But it's likely that a simple search of the registries will satisfy that requirement.
Naturally, photographers (and other rights owners) will have to pay to have their material registered (and pay again in terms of time and management overhead).
The AP proposal - based on this meagre information - would seem to go a little bit further. It would actively recover unpaid licensing fees and perhaps take legal action against infringers. That's a good idea. But who ultimately benefits? Although some rights owners will get fees they wouldn't otherwise have received, my guess is that, over time, most will be out of pocket - that the costs of registering material will outweigh any fees recovered.
It has to be that way, doesn't it? If this wasn't a money-making proposition for AP then why would they go to the considerable expense and trouble of setting this up? Or, at least, why would they take on the burden of acting on behalf on non-AP material? It must be a profit centre for the organisation.
I'm sure AP will promote this by focusing on the fees it's recovering. This is rather like a casino selling itself by highlighting the occasional jackpot winner. The truth is, if you go into a casino, you will lose money. I once interviewed a casino manager in Reno and asked him about the big winners they get from time to time. He looked at me with steely grey eyes and said: "Nobody wins". I'm getting the same feeling here.
Content owners - such as we humble freelances - will be forced to spend money up front paying for protection we might never need. You could look on this as insurance or as a protection racket (I personally think there's little difference). Either way, it's the registries, ultimately, that will make money out of this while we togs will end up with a higher base cost for doing business, making it even more difficult to earn a living as a professional.