Media companies of the world, Unite!

Google News AFP sued. Google blinked.

The first shot of the counter revolution has been fired.

The Topix deal not withstanding, AFP’s seeming victory may embolden other media companies to take a stand against the aggregators, especially those such as Google News, Topix and Moreover that don’t pay licensing fees (as far as I know, Yahoo! forks over big bucks to the wire services included in Yahoo! News, but none of the others do, as far as I know.)

A few days ago, I was laughing at AFP for not “getting it.” I’m reconsidering my elitist sneer.

A pure aggregator, meaning a site that does nothing more than provide links and headlines, is building a business model on the original content of other companies — companies that often make big investments in the gathering and dissemination of information. Is it really fair for big corporations, such as Google, to take market share from other businesses and give nothing back?

You might argue that Google generates that ever sought-after commodity called traffic, but depending on the site, much of that traffic may be unwanted bandwidth-sucking leeches. If the traffic isn’t part of the target audience, the audience the news site can use to generate revenue, such as a local news site looking for a local audience, then Google isn’t doing the site any favors.

Maybe it’s time for big media companies to say “enough is enough. The free ride is over.”

The aggregators do dilute a media company’s ability to derive revenue from its product.

Is it unfair for media companies to expect the aggregates to pay a licensing fee to original content companies? I vote for a pay-per-click model.

Of course, media companies that stand up to Google may find themselves in a similar fight with other media companies. Think: branded RSS readers. There’s a growing trend there, and you can’t exactly expect to include another company’s feed in your reader if you’re demanding licensing fees from the aggregators. At the same time, I can answer my own counter argument: If you’re a media company putting an RSS feed out there, you’re just asking for it to be consumed, so what copyright protections do you deserve then? Steve Yelvington has dealt with this issue previously. It’s not an easy question to answer. Yet.

So where does this leave citizen journalism?

Try, fair use. It’s perfectly acceptable for a blogger to deep link to a news story (AFP or otherwise) and comment on it. The blogger is creating an original derivative work. I don’t expect that practice to ever be seriously challenged. Hell, smart media companies realize that is exactly the kind of attention they want.

For all the bloggers defending Google, they might want to think about where they would be without big media creating the content they love to disparage. Good reporting, hell, even bad reporting, takes money to produce. Media companies deserve the same opportunity as anybody else to derive a profit from the fruits of their labor. The non-licensing aggregators do pose a threat to media revenue models.

One final point that needs to be made — AFP is a little different from many of the media companies included in Google News. AFP is a wire service. It sells its stories to customers, and Google was able gather AFP links from AFP’s customers, thereby diluting the overall value of AFP content to potential future customers. Also, it’s safe to assume that Google competitor Yahoo! is paying AFP to publish its stories. So the stakes are a little higher for AFP than many other media companies. You might argue that AFP could tell its customers to block Google’s robot (with a robot.txt), but what if an AFP customer doesn’t completely comply? What is AFP going to do, start suing its customers? I don’t think so. The only option was to go after Google.

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