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AP Will Sell You a "License" To Words It Doesn't Own 340

Posted by kdawson
from the almost-as-ironic-as-disappearing-1984 dept.
James Grimmelmann performed an experiment using the AP's form to request a license to use more than four consecutive words from one of their articles. Except that he didn't paste in words from the (randomly chosen) article, but instead used 26 words written by Thomas Jefferson 196 years ago: If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea. The AP cheerfully charged him $12 to use Jefferson's 26 words. Both Boing Boing and TechDirt have picked up the story so far. Grimmelmann adds an update to his blog: the AP has rescinded his license to Jefferson's words and issued a refund for his $12. They did not exhibit the grace to admit that their software is brain-dead.
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AP Will Sell You a "License" To Words It Doesn't Own

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  • by CuteSteveJobs (1343851) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:17PM (#28934415)

    And so we see yet another terminally-ill industry smothering itself with a pillow.

  • Free press (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Mendoksou (1480261) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:19PM (#28934425)
    Should be changed to "$.46-a-word" press.
  • by seanadams.com (463190) * on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:19PM (#28934429) Homepage
    I'm afraid Mr. Grimmelman has a severe English comprehension deficiency. The instructions are a single sentence, clear as day. It says paste the article text you want to use. Not " paste whatever you like, and if our javascript form counts the words for you then consider it assertion of copyright by us.".
    • by slashqwerty (1099091) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:25PM (#28934475)
      The Associated Press collects articles from reporters all over the world. I doubt those reporters submit articles royalty-free. How does the AP tie licensed text back to the article it applies to? Clearly they don't bother.
      • by RedK (112790)
        Or they do a differed search for the licensed words and apply the royalties after the fact. Why would they need to find the article in real time ? They can just batch up requests and process them when there's less requests or on another system completely.
      • by rm999 (775449)

        Did you try it? When I clicked on the licensing link "Click here for copyright permissions" the URL was tagged with a key: http://license.icopyright.net/3.5721?icx_id=D99RNEOO2 [icopyright.net]

        Those numbers appear to be different for each article.

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by Planesdragon (210349)

        How does the AP tie licensed text back to the article it applies to?

        They do it by not paying royalties -- they do it by buying a license to distribute the article to others.

        Let's say that you're, oh, a novelist with a 100,000 word novel, and a choice of how to get your payment. You can get paid 10% off the top for every one of your $10 books sold, OR you can get a $.10 a word for the right for the publisher to print your novel, and keep all the profit (or risk) to themselves.

        If you're Stephen King, and can expect to easily sell way over 10,000 copies, you insist on the fi

        • by PCM2 (4486) on Monday August 03, 2009 @08:31PM (#28935041) Homepage

          Actually, I think virtually all book publishers only give money up front as an "advance against royalties." Often the figure is based on an estimate of how many copies will actually sell. If you write a computer book, for example, you'll probably never see much in the way of royalties beyond the original advance, because the publisher will be able to predict the market for your book and compensate you appropriately. I've heard of few instances where modern book publishers pay by the word. Magazine publishers, on the other hand, often do -- but then, the lengths of magazine articles are usually dictated by the magazine's editors.

      • by PCM2 (4486)

        The Associated Press collects articles from reporters all over the world. I doubt those reporters submit articles royalty-free.

        Really? I have never heard of a news reporter earning royalties. Reporters who want royalties write books.

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by SatanicPuppy (611928) *

        Actually, they do. In fact, they pay to submit those articles.

        The reporters are paid by member newspapers, who submit their articles (if they're deemed noteworthy) for the AP to distribute. The AP can then do whatever the hell they want to with them. A good portion of the time some overworked schmuck at the AP office goes through and rips out all the local quotes, and locally relevant text (so as to make it more applicable across the country) and, having changed the story more than, say, 20%, they pull the

    • Re: (Score:2, Interesting)

      by Liquidrage (640463)
      /thread

      This is a non-story. Some dude wanted to prove a point no one should care to prove. And he did.

      Maybe the real point isn't done yet. Maybe the real point is that tech-news places will post any drivel they can find as news that they can flimsily relate to "your rights" and technology.
      If that is the case I eagerly await his follow up story.
    • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

      by Mendoksou (1480261)
      Good point. And they did refund the money. I guess the flaw is assuming that the user wants to play by the rules, and I suppose we'd be complaining even at the unnecessary restrictions to account for the users who do not. We can make any machine look stupid when we misuse it.

      The beef here I think is that they have the 'audacity' to sell the license... but now that I think about it, it's still a much better system than trying to contact a real person and deal with it. Still, I don't think it should be too
      • by TubeSteak (669689) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:42PM (#28934635) Journal

        We can make any machine look stupid when we misuse it.

        Rule #1: Never trust user input.

        Still, I don't think it should be too hard to have a JavaScript check to see if the words come from the actual article.

        LOL @ Javascript
        They need a database of every AP article ever published.
        Then they can either hash the pasted text & try to find
        the source or they can require you to provide a citation.
        Either way, you don't want to do that client-side with javascript.

    • Way to ruin the funny with your so called "english comprehension."

      Anyway, it is still pretty funny that they "revoked" his "license" instead of laughing it off or pointing out that the real failure was his.

    • by commodoresloat (172735) * on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:34PM (#28934563)

      But I think his point was to ridicule the ridiculous assumption from AP that they should be able to restrict access to and license on a per-word basis any text "more than four consecutive words" in the first place. The Jefferson quote helps him make the point. The fact that the software is basically just a word counter adds a level of lol, but I don't think that was the main point of this experiment.

    • Why would the AP charge for words it doesn't own? Is it malice or incompetence on their part?

      • Re:Hanlon's razor (Score:4, Insightful)

        by sbeckstead (555647) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:52PM (#28934727) Homepage Journal
        Why would you put words they don't own into their licensing software? Is it malice or stupidity on your part?
        • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

          by mdwh2 (535323)

          To demonstrate how stupid it is. The whole point of the tool is to tell you how much (if any) you have to pay them - if you already know that, what's the point of the tool?

          Consider, supposing I want to licence an article, and within that article is a large chunk of text that's quoted from Jefferson or whoever. This suggests that it would happily include those words in the cost calculation. I guess it's their right to charge whatever arbitrary value they like for a whole article, but this is all the more rea

      • Re:Hanlon's razor (Score:5, Informative)

        by Liquidrage (640463) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:54PM (#28934741)
        He *offered* to pay them for words they don't own and they accepted his money since the mechanism for doing so does not check ownership. It's simply a word count. AP did not seek him out to collect charges. That is a big difference. In fact, that difference to me is why it's a non-story. Basically the AP is charging on a "per word" basis. So all they need to do count words. That someone decided to pay the AP for a worthless license and the AP decided to issue a worthless license doesn't mean anything. No laws were broken. No trust broken. No rights violated. The person did this with intent to gain a worthless license even. He got what he paid for.
        • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

          by TubeSteak (669689)

          That someone decided to pay the AP for a worthless license and the AP decided to issue a worthless license doesn't mean anything. No laws were broken. No trust broken. No rights violated. The person did this with intent to gain a worthless license even. He got what he paid for.

          What if the guy had used a paragraph from Dr. Phil's latest book?
          The AP accepted money and offered a license for a copyright they do not own.
          That is a contract and is arguably fraud.

          It's not as simple as "asshat does something stupid".

        • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

          He *offered* to pay them for words they don't own and they accepted his money since the mechanism for doing so does not check ownership. It's simply a word count.

          Actually, no, it does apparently check ownership (or at least tries to). If you RTFA and see the screenshot therein, you'll see that the system added the following attribution footer to it:

          Excerpted from AP Sources: Military-civilian terror prison eyed as published in Associated Press

          and then there's another footer underneath that claims:

          (c) 2009 Associated Press

          And the thing goes on to claim that excerpt can only be used exactly as written, and with both footers intact.

          The problem is that the system is bu

      • Re: (Score:3, Insightful)

        Why would the AP charge for words it doesn't own? Is it malice or incompetence on their part?

        Well, why would anyone request a license from AP for words that AP doesn't own? Is Grimmelmann too incompetent to figure out why the whole premise of his exercise is inane, or is he maliciously trying to portray AP as greedy when their only "sin" here is not making their systems impervious to idiots who would throw their money away?

    • by j1mmy (43634) on Monday August 03, 2009 @08:03PM (#28934829) Journal

      What if Jefferson's quote had been used in the article?

      • by JWSmythe (446288)

        I was about to ask the same thing. I've seen plenty of famous quotes show up in AP stories. And, those are just the ones I've seen. AP sucks up and redistributes so many stories, it's virtually impossible for any individual to have read them all (except on the weekends, when it's all just recycled news).

        But, if the article is right, they're claiming that quote ran in the AP story AP sources: Military-civilian terror prison eyed [google.com]. If you read the story, it clearly didn't. Or

    • I bet at some point in their history they quoted this same passage of text, and this is what they guy wanted to use.

  • I don't think so; the software did exactly what it was supposed to do. What is brain-dead here is the AP thinking that this sort of thing is a good idea in the first place. I can understand them wanting to charge for the use of entire articles in commercial databases or such, but I can't imagine a situation in which you would want to use "more than four consecutive words" (but less than entire articles) for anything that wouldn't be covered by fair use anyway.

    • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

      by yincrash (854885)
      The moral of the story is don't let content owners tell you what is acceptable fair use, because OF COURSE they will always err on it being not fair use. I think that for anyone who legitimately wants to follow the law and legitimately use a large portion of text, having a tool like this is pretty great. It's better than the alternatives of having to hassle with trying to find someone w/in the AP that can license to you or just illegally copying the text outright.


      but again, if you know you are w/in fair
      • why is it great? (Score:3, Insightful)

        All this tool does is count the number of words in a block of text. Every word processor and text editor I can think of has this feature already built in. And the premise that the copyright owner should be able to charge on a per-word basis (especially in text made up largely of quotations from other sources, as most AP articles are) is truly preposterous.

    • by SETIGuy (33768)

      I can understand them wanting to charge for the use of entire articles in commercial databases or such, but I can't imagine a situation in which you would want to use "more than four consecutive words" (but less than entire articles) for anything that wouldn't be covered by fair use anyway.

      It's worse than that. It's dangerous for anyone ever to use this tool. By using this tool and paying AP for a license to use N words, you might be acknowledging that you believe that any bit of text N words or greater is not covered by fair use. It's better to get wrongly sued for a fair use than to give up fair use entirely.

  • by Frater 219 (1455) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:22PM (#28934457) Journal

    I've known folks whose workplaces used to pay Sun a license fee for Perl ... the same Perl you could download for free (as in beer); and yes, the same Perl that is one of the usual examples of successful free (as in speech) software.

    No, they didn't get tech support. They didn't get to file bugs against Perl that would be resolved by a Sun engineer. They didn't even get a custom build of Perl optimized for their Sun hardware. They didn't even get a CD. What they got was an invoice ... precisely what their company's IT procurement process required.

    It's idiotic, but there is in fact a market for nothing: if you are correctly positioned as a trusted supplier, there are cases when you can get paid for delivering no product at all, but merely for carrying out the ritual of delivering a product, with all the paperwork thereunto appertaining.

    • RIAA/MPAA (Score:5, Funny)

      by syousef (465911) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:49PM (#28934705) Journal

      It's idiotic, but there is in fact a market for nothing: if you are correctly positioned as a trusted supplier

      Finally! An explanation for the RIAA/MPAA and other association's sense of entitlement that we can all understand!

    • I'm going to start a business selling licenses to things that I don't own. It will be a covenant from me that if I do ever become the owner of said property, I won't sue you for not paying me. It's important to be BabyDuckHat compliant.
    • by bitt3n (941736) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:54PM (#28934745)

      if you are correctly positioned as a trusted supplier, there are cases when you can get paid for delivering no product at all, but merely for carrying out the ritual of delivering a product, with all the paperwork thereunto appertaining.

      there's no need to bring religion into this

    • by Facegarden (967477) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:56PM (#28934765)

      I've known folks whose workplaces used to pay Sun a license fee for Perl ... the same Perl you could download for free (as in beer); and yes, the same Perl that is one of the usual examples of successful free (as in speech) software.

      No, they didn't get tech support. They didn't get to file bugs against Perl that would be resolved by a Sun engineer. They didn't even get a custom build of Perl optimized for their Sun hardware. They didn't even get a CD. What they got was an invoice ... precisely what their company's IT procurement process required...

      Yeah, I noticed SQLite allows for the option of purchasing a license, even though it is public domain, for that exact reason - when someone who doesn't get it above you makes you buy a license. Then they charge $1000. Heh.

      Which makes me wonder... if it is in the public domain, couldn't anyone sell a license for it? And if that's the case, couldn't *I* sell a license for it, for cheaper? I could sell SQLite licenses for a mere $500!

      Anyone know about that?
      -Taylor

      • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

        by shermozle (126249)

        You don't get it. No, you charge $5,000 because nobody in their right mind would buy the cheap and nasty version. Oh no, your version is CERTIFIED. (includes certificate on fancy paper)

      • Re: (Score:3, Informative)

        by AnyoneEB (574727)
        The SQLite paid options [sqlite.org] include some extra features and support ("expedited bug fixes and fast, authoritative answers to common SQLite programming questions"). They do give you something for your money.
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        Which makes me wonder... if it is in the public domain, couldn't anyone sell a license for it? And if that's the case, couldn't *I* sell a license for it, for cheaper?

        Yes, absolutely. Just so long as you don't claim that you own copyright to it, and that all rights to SQLite are reserved to you exclusively (which is what AP does here).

      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by PitaBred (632671)
        Sure. Go for it. That's exactly what "public domain" means. If you can get a copy of it, you can do whatever you want with it. Why do you think Barnes and Noble can sell old public domain books?
    • by fermion (181285)
      Capitalism is based on the idea of value added. Libertarian and republican politics is based on the idea that government interference has a net benefit in limited cases. It is up to the consumer to make sure that the value added is worth the costs charged. For instance, a bottle of tap water is sold for a dollar. A throwaway guitar with a picture of Hannah Montana on it is sold for $50. A nylon bag with a prada label is a thousand. Is it up to government to restrict these values?

      No, the issue is not

  • not surprising (Score:3, Informative)

    by wizardforce (1005805) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:25PM (#28934479) Journal

    considering AP is a company that doesn't allow anything resembling fair use is it really surprising tht they would show the kind of laziness demonstrated here? Assuming some court doesn't strike this nonsense down as a violation of fair use rights, the system is completely broken and should be either reformed greatly or abolished.

    • You know that most articles have the "(source: AP)" tag on them in most major news outlets. Guess what: they are a damn big chunk of the system.

      As for your assertion: morally and by the law of about 100 years ago the answer is yes, today..

      • if they can make more by cheating and/or laziness they should be expected to do so. this is not surprising, it is simply the result of millions of years of evolutionary selection- look out for you and yours through means available to you.

    • Assuming some court doesn't strike this nonsense down as a violation of fair use rights

      Fair Use is not a right. Free speech is a right. Fair Use is a defense against copyright infringement, due to the otherwise chilling affect it would have upon free speech.

      And court's can't "strike down" private actions; they simply refuse to recognize them as legally valid.

      Fun fact: when you make a contract (like the AP's license), there are three critically important things you should know:
      1: Who wrote it. (You or them?)
      2: What jurisdiction is covered (Do you just agree that you'd fly out to CA to defen

  • by MrKaos (858439) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:26PM (#28934491) Journal
    Maybe they just think that no one has used those words in that particular order before.
  • by Thelasko (1196535) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:29PM (#28934519) Journal
    I'm writing a computer program that will figure out every word combination that can possibly be used to form a sentence, and then copyrighting the output. When someone writes something somewhere, I'll sue them for copyright infringement.

    Don't even think about stealing this idea. I have it patent pending on it!
  • Four words? (Score:4, Funny)

    by T Murphy (1054674) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:29PM (#28934521) Journal
    At least using "free as in beer" stays free as in beer.
  • I think it's delightful that the very thing (the internet) which has caused the various IP Mafia's to go all horse-head on everyone is the same thing that exposes their stupidity.

    • Re:Godfatheads (Score:5, Insightful)

      by HangingChad (677530) on Monday August 03, 2009 @08:09PM (#28934891) Homepage

      ...is the same thing that exposes their stupidity.

      I think that was the whole point to the exercise...missed by some above. The content provider trying to extort people into paying license fees they may not need. This exercise demonstrates that the content provider in question can't positively identify their own material or material that they can't legitimately claim as intellectual property. They can't conclusively back up the need for anyone to license a particular piece. They're ignoring the context, intended use and trying to rewrite fair use by their own definition.

      This exercise exposes that it's a scam, an online shake down. I think it actually works against their IP claims.

  • I can has good submission now?
  • Reuters text? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by AhNewBis (42974) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:38PM (#28934595)
    What if the AP sells you a license for text copyrighted by Reuters or any of the other wire services? Woah, man!
    • by bitt3n (941736) on Monday August 03, 2009 @07:59PM (#28934793)
      what if you buy a quotation that is itself quoting another AP article? Do you have to pay twice? What if the article is quoting itself? An infinite loop of profitability! Finally online content has a sustainable business model.
      • by Mashiki (184564)

        Could be interesting. I've been quoted in several news articles(CP, AP, and AFP). I wonder if they owe me royalties now.

    • by Draek (916851)

      Unless their license allows relicensing to third parties, they'd likely get sued for copyright infringement and perhaps even fraud.

      Wouldn't it be sweet?

  • Send this genius to my website, I'll sell him a bridge I don't own. Who would be stupid enough to pay someone for word he knows they don't own. If I were AP I would have kept his money.
  • That is the dumbest... Damn! Can I get a license to finish this, AP?
  • Hmmmmm (Score:3, Funny)

    by Copperfield (1117631) on Monday August 03, 2009 @10:19PM (#28935735)

    Is it 5 words in a row or do I get charged for any 5 words I pull from the article? If so I would like to grab words "a, the, it, the, and" so I don't end up having to pay someone else even more.

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