It seems that every day there is a new threat to the way the internet operates. The past few months have seen the threat embodied by the SOPA and PIPA bills. Once they failed, thanks to the world’s largest online protest ever, another piece of work called ACTA took center stage. And while the trifecta of special interest legislation I mention above deserves the attention it did/is receiving, the internet landscape is also being hit with less expansive and more subtle attacks on its functionality. In the case of this article, I am referring to one such lawsuit which was filed on Tuesday of last week by the AP against a company called the Meltwater Group.
According to AP CEO Tom Curley, one of the Meltwater Group’s services, Meltwater News, is a “parasitic distribution service” that illegally takes and profits from the AP’s news content. The allegations are that Meltwater News’ entire business is built on “the willful exploitation and copying of the AP’s and other publishers’ news articles for profit.” A claim which very much surprised Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen who released a statement saying that, “this is the first we have heard of the AP’s concerns and we are surprised. From their press release, it appears that the AP misunderstands how our service works in many key respects.”
The lawsuit was filed right after a ruling on a similar dispute between the Meltwater Group and the Newspaper Licensing Association (NLA) in England. There, the court maintained that the NLA had a right to charge a licensing fee on Meltwater, but decided to reduce the price point. The fact that the AP filed a suit against the same company with similar allegations right after said company receives a small victory is a bit suspicious if you ask me. But I guess it was decent of them to wait so that the Meltwater Group wouldn’t need to fight two lawsuits at once.
Being in the media myself and having been an employee of one of Meltwater’s other services in the past; I found the case quite interesting and decided to look into it a little further.
Now, just to give you a bit of background, Meltwater News is an online clipping service that allows companies to track the media coverage of their organization, people, products and industry. Meltwater News customers are willing to pay the company for access to this software because it helps them gauge the effectiveness of their marketing and public relations campaigns. Boasting more than 18,000 clients worldwide seems like Meltwater has a good thing going.
So where do these allegations come from? Well, according to the AP’s acting general counsel Laura Malone said it is because Meltwater can archive articles back as far as 2007 and give their clients daily reports on said articles, that “Meltwater free-rides on [the] AP’s significant investments in gathering and reporting news.” It is their point of view that Meltwater News is infringing on copyright law. But I can tell you that I have seen one of these reports and the AP is very much incorrect. The reports Meltwater News gathers are a compilation of articles which pertain to the keywords or phrases their clients want to track, this much is true. But the reports mainly consist of the article title, the author, the source, and maybe a line or two about why it got put in the report (highlighting the keywords that client was looking for). The real benefit of the service comes from being able to click on the title and be lead directly to the article without having to have done the research manually yourself. So what does this really mean? Well, say I am the Department of Homeland Security, an organization which used to be an AP subscriber till they signed up with Meltwater News (ouch!) and I want to see all the articles in the US talking about “Iranian threat.” What I would see, in its most basic form, is a reports which shows me that this morning there were 10 top-tier articles that mentioned that phrase. If I want to actually see what was said, I’d click on the article and find myself land on the source’s webpage, which could very well be the AP’s webpage.
So how is this copyright infringement exactly? Well, its not. Meltwater News never claims to be the source of these articles, nor do they take a pdf copy of the article. So the archiving they refer to is an archive of the titles of these articles along with links to them on the internet (many of which will not work anymore if they are from 2007).
But if this is the case then how come the AP is gunning for Meltwater News like this? Well, here is the attack on the internet that I was talking about in the introduction to this article. The AP is a large and established organization, but with the internet, it has seen its business model become more and more outdated. The simple reality of the situation is that Newspapers don’t sell anymore, so what’s the AP to do? Like most established organizations, it doesn’t want to give up its power and its profits by competing; it would rather have internet companies like Meltwater News pay them to link back to their site!
So when we boil this down we are left with the AP, demanding that Meltwater News pay licensing fees so that they can “lawfully” link back to the AP’s website and drive their traffic, which in turn will make them more valuable online, and thus give them more leverage with advertisers. Pretty arrogant stuff if you ask me.
As far as my opinion is concerned, I agree with Meltwater CEO Jorn Lyseggen when he says that his company is very similar to Google and other search engines that find relevant information for users.
The case will most likely be settled out of court but the suit does represent just the latest in the continued efforts by big, established organizations to regulate the content on the internet. And that, I do not like.