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AP to Bloggers: Chill Out!

Goliath is telling the army of Davids there is nothing to fear. Oh, really?

by
Brian C. Ledbetter

Bio

June 20, 2008 - 12:55 am

Fret not, fearless blogger: The Associated Press is not coming after you. They have been so busy pursuing a dastardly content thief that they forgot to mention that they weren’t trying to shut down the entire blogging world. This time.

Don’t you feel better already?

Robert Cox, the head of the Media Bloggers Association with which the AP is currently negotiating, has released a statement yesterday outlining his view of how things between the AP and the Drudge Retort transpired. And, while he doesn’t claim to represent the entire blogosphere, his statements are sweeping enough to have raised some extreme ire in parts thereabout. And, when one considers that the MBA is in business with the Associated Press, things become just that much hazier.

According to Robert, this is all a giant misunderstanding, as the Associated Press is taking issue with a long series of abuses — presumably “frequent and systemic” — committed by contributors to the Retort. At issue, Robert says, are cases in which entire AP articles were posted to the website, triggering the AP’s automated copyright-protection system, and sending their crack legal staff rushing down the fire pole, ready to spring into action against the dastardly infraction.

That’s all well and good, and nobody doubts that the Associated Press has every right to protect its collective intellectual property, but the core problem here remains unchanged. Whenever the AP sends a cease-and-desist letter to we, the unfunded rabble, the ripple extends far beyond the individuals involved.

Sure, it’s an isolated case when they send their army of lawyers after the Drudge Retort. Or when they threaten Snapped Shot. But when examined as a whole, the campaign itself presents a most terrifying problem.

You see, bloggers, as a general rule, write what we do as a hobby. We share our thoughts on modern news and events as individual efforts, and are largely uncompensated for our work, because we enjoy doing so, not because we expect a giant payday for our efforts.

As such, most of us do not have a team of lawyers on-hand to respond to legal complaints. No legal counsel ready to send a quick reply. No protection whatsoever against personal financial trouble if the copyright challenge turns into a courtroom battle.

And, as most legal battles are determined and defined by jurisdiction, even if we do get offers for legal help, as I was blessed to receive back in March, in most cases the kind lawyers making such offers aren’t in a position to actually be able to help. Or if they are, it comes at a price which we bloggers can’t afford to pay. For instance, I was offered absolute protection if the AP pursued me further, so long as I paid out a $10,000 retainer — which isn’t exactly all that helpful for a hobbyist, but if things had progressed further, it might have been a tragic necessity.

Sadly, I didn’t hear about the Internet superhero until well after the fact.

Left helpless in the legal jungle, most bloggers in this situation have no recourse other than to fold to the threat, and subsequently live with the dictates mandated by the lawyers above. If you don’t think this has a “chilling effect” (and I do hate quoting liberals) on the blogosphere, you’ve obviously never been the target of one of these campaigns.

That’s okay, though, because according to Mr. Cox, the AP is being strongly encouraged to provide some instructions to we bloggers about how we plebians can use their content.

Oh, really?

You know, if the AP is really serious about offering guidelines to the public over how their content can be used, then who knows? Maybe it’s a good thing, but it’s not like such an outline would be anything new. And, if it goes beyond what’s prescribed by federal Copyright statutes, it may do more harm than good.

Legal blogger Gabriel Malor has, in fact, already offered such an explanation, which I think should be read and memorized by bloggers everywhere. In particular, Gabriel says, “Fair use isn’t, however, carte blanche to take the copyrighted works of others. And it’s not always easy to tell just how much copying fair use will cover.”

Wise advice for everyone. Quotation and properly linked attribution are the lifeblood of the blogosphere, but these principles that have developed over time aren’t legal by any stretch of imagination. Or, more accurately, they aren’t “defined” by statute — which is all that matters to the corporate lawyer-types that send out these types of threats.

Cox claims that his group offers legal protection to bloggers who receive legal threats from news associations. If even remotely true, I would suggest that everyone rush to sign up to become a member of the Association. I fear, however, that this might be nothing but an attempt to capitalize on the fame for personal gain.

After all, when the AP came calling for me, the Media Bloggers Association was nowhere to be found.

But then again, neither was the New York Times.

It’s funny how that works.

Brian Ledbetter writes Snapped Shot, a blog dedicated to critiquing photojournalism amongst other things, and is a part of the small but proud club of people who the Associated Press loves to hate.
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