Link or steal

There has been quite a debate recently about the announcement by the Associated Press that they will protect their news by a code that will enable them to show who is using their content without paying for it. I am not sure everyone in the debate discussed the same thing, but in any case it was and is quite useful. Among others we had an intervention by Chris Ahearn from Reuters, that I consider very important because it addresses both sides of the fence. Which is, incidentaly, my approach to the issue as well.

To be sure, there were not many outside the AP who would applaud their effort to protect their news. Many simply point out, probably rightly, that it probably will not work. A useful summary about the issues is here. For Steve Buttry, AP´s “Protect, Point, Pay” is a reminder of the Hummer:

General Motors thought it was moving forward when it trotted out the massive sport-utility version of a military vehicle. The Hummer represented a lot of smart work by a lot of engineers and GM sold a lot of Hummers. It carried on a GM tradition of massive vehicles under the Cadillac, Buick and Oldsmobile brands. But how did the Hummer work out in the long run? How’s GM doing today? In a world threatened by climate change and in a nation dependent on oil from unstable regions, the Hummer was simply the wrong move.

I nice metaphor many will use, but I somehow fail to see a connection between making a wrong strategic decision and trying to protect your property.

However earlier Buttry wrote a piece that, I think, is much more salient to the debate.  His starting point is that AP has so far usually served the interests of its members well.

When our readers needed us to provide national and world news, stock tables and coverage of sports beyond our own markets, AP developed a cost-efficient way to provide that content and fill our huge newspapers. It was a great relationship. AP contributed to and shared in our success while we racked up profit margins way beyond our best advertisers’.

According to him, AP should lead the way and could deliver real value for members by developing tools and platforms for member newspapers to provide local e-commerce services, in development of mobile applications that members could use to deliver content and generate revenue (AP has developed a popular iPhone app) etc. Simply AP should according to this line of thinking forget about protecting its content and help find new revenue streams in spreading the content more widely and more cleverly.

Chris Ahearn brings new depth into the debate in many aspects, primarily because he widens it. It is not a debate about AP, with which our American colleagues are so (and understandably) obsessed. It is about “us”, anyone who provides content on the Internet. He sets off by saying:

“Do unto others”

It’s a simple standard my mom taught me when I was a kid – yours probably taught it too. It isn’t always easy, but in business it’s a good guiding light if you don’t want your company to be evil.

That, among other things, means that, of course, people should not pay for just linking to what other people (or companies) provided. Appropriate excerpting and referencing (and linking) is acceptable. But at the same time:

If someone wants to create a business on the back of others’ original content, the parties should have a business relationship that benefits both.

It is exactly that. I suggest we stop shooting at each other and have a real, grown up, grounded conversation. Internet is not mine or yours. It is not a threat but a golden opportunity for journalism. As a reporter I got so much out of it – and I am sure I could have gotten much more if I had more time or had used the advice I got better. As a manager, of course, I see threats but, frankly, they are not so new, only easier to come by.

The issue is not a debate about who is “old” and who is “new”, who is the “mastodon” and who is the visionary. History and market will tell, we do not need to bother ourselves in arguing that now. What we need is to come to certain, very basic agreements. How we can work together, which business models are sustainable, which ones will bring the win-win situation. How we can change the present 19th century style of everyone trying to eat everyone else in the debate, into the 21th century style, “web 2.0”, collaborative effort.