Attributor: Will it be used for good or evil?

By Steve Outing

I’m not sure anyone outside the Associated Press’ top leadership truly understands its intentions regarding use and re-use of its content outside officially licensed deals. But over at’s E-Media Tidbits, Megan Taylor makes a brave attempt at sorting through the muck: “How AP’s News Registry Will (and Won’t) Work.”

Much of the AP’s saber-rattling lately has focused on copyright enforcement of its content — to keep other web publishers and aggregators from “stealing” its articles, photos, and videos without paying a licensing or syndication fee. That’s fine if the newspaper-owned wire service is looking for those who are republishing its full content without permission, a re-licensing arrangement through another party, or paying the AP or its members. It’s not at all fine if it’s trying to prevent others’ use of headlines and short excerpts that most would consider to be legal under “fair use” laws; and recent statements from AP’s president indicate that the AP now considers even headlines and short excerpts something that should be paid for by other parties to the AP.

This is where Attributor comes in. The AP has been working with this Silicon Valley company since 2007 because Attributor has developed technology to track and identify where your content is being re-used across the web, and then take a variety of actions based on this knowledge.

I interviewed Attributor CEO Jim Pitkow recently, and I really like the central idea behind the technology it’s developed. In effect, the company has created a new variation of content syndication, and this could be of significant financial benefit to news publishers.

Here’s what Attributor can do:

  • Determine who is republishing your content online, and how much of it. It can give you, the originating publisher of news content (e.g., the AP), a dashboard showing who is republishing your full articles, as well as who is publishing headlines and excerpts (and whether or not they’re publishing links back to the full original article).
  • Allow the publisher to act on this knowledge in multiple ways, at the discretion of the publisher.
    1. Send a DMCA notice demanding that the infringing publisher cease and desist from publishing the originating publisher’s copyrighted content. And follow up to ensure compliance.
    2. Notify the infringing publisher that it can either take down the purloined content, OR continue to publish it (past publication and ongoing) by agreeing to share a negotiated portion of the ad revenues generated from that content with the content owner.
    3. If the infringing publisher refuses to execute either of the options in No. 2, Attributor will notify search engines of the violation and ask that the site be removed from being indexed (effectively punishing the site for stealing by making it invisible). Attributor also will notify ad networks that the infringing site is violating its client’s copyright and ask that the site’s ad-network account be cancelled or blocked.

For the most part, I think the Attributor strategy is brilliant. It doesn’t just enforce, it’s also a syndication marketing tool! It supports a news publisher allowing the spread of its news content far and wide; it doesn’t force a strategy of getting web users to always visit the content owner’s site (i.e., walled garden), but rather allows people to read the full content in all sorts of places.

This is EXACTLY what many news publishers should be doing! They must figure out ways to “let their content go free” while monetizing it as it spreads across the web. Indeed, a news publisher could suggest that other sites publish their full content in exchange for an ad-revenue share. Not only does this bring in new revenue, but it also spreads the news around much wider — which is in the public interest.

News publishers have got to realize that it’s in their best interest if their sole website is not where the online user MUST go to read or view their content.

Here’s an example: Let’s say the AP, by using Attributor, discovers that a political website is publishing full text of all AP politics articles, unauthorized. AP can decide to let Attributor offer option No. 2 to the political site: either stop stealing our full content, or agree to a shared-ad-revenue deal and continue publishing full AP politics stories. AP would get to set the percentage offered; let’s say it wants 70% of the ad money brought in from its content as published on the politics site, leaving the site publisher to keep 30%.

How can this not make sense? The AP, in this example, has created a new (albeit small) revenue stream from someone else publishing its full content — where before it was getting nothing. Multiply that by many thousands of sites that Attributor may find publishing full AP content without permission, some (many?) of which are then turned into revenue sources. It’s taking advantage of the nature of the Internet and the ease with which digital content can be copied and republished, rather than fighting it in what ends up being attempting to push back the waves from the ocean beach.

As Pitkow explained to me, the publisher has control of what action(s) to take. If, say, the AP finds a bunch of “pipsqueak” bloggers who occasionally post a full AP article, it probably would be wise to do nothing; it’s not worth the bother.

If it finds a website like the political one in our hypothetical example above, that’s a marketing opportunity. Try to turn the site into a paying customer (by getting a chunk of its ad revenues derived from the AP content); if it doesn’t want to do that, it must cease the copyright infringement or face dire consequences.

Much of the debate in the news industry of late has been over putting content behind pay walls. Just this week, Rupert Murdoch announced that his newspaper sites would begin charging, apparently, for all content sometime in 2010. I find it doubtful he’ll go that far; we’ll more likely see just some “premium” content and services from Rupe’s newspaper websites cost something. If he follows through on that “all” threat, I’m comfortable calling that decision “stupid,” because it will help out his competitors who decide not to charge, and reduce his sites’ ad revenues as audience plummets.

I believe that the Attributor content-monitoring and syndication-marketing strategy stands a much better chance of increasing revenues, while a paid-wall strategy for news most likely will reduce revenues. The first model leverages the nature of the web; the second fights against it with old, outdated models, and thus is destined to fail. (To be clear, I’m not talking about a “freemium” model where limited, special content and services cost something, but most news content is free.)

The one big problem with Attributor is that the company is simply building enabling technology, and publishers can use it in ways they choose. So if AP president Tom Curley sticks to what he told the New York Times last month, that the AP will go after websites, aggregators, and search engines that include a headline and a link to an article, then Attributor will have been used in a stupid manner. Ditto if it looks for those who republish its full articles or excerpts that are too long, but doesn’t offer the option of turning the infringers into customers. It will be used as an enforcement tool (negative) rather than a marketing tool (positive).

Also, Attributor could be used to find all the aggregators and others who are publishing regular headline and excerpt links to original AP content. That list of online publishers is a valuable tool for AP syndication sales reps, who could offer the sites deals allowing the publishers to also publish full AP content for a price.

I can only hope that news CEOs understand the potential of Attributor for doing good, not just punishing evil. Frankly, with recent statements by Murdoch, Curley, et al, I’m not confident that they’ll do the right thing.

The wrong choice could kill much of the traditional news industry.

I’m reminded of former President George W. Bush and one of his many wacky statements: “You’re either with us or against us.” The Internet presents a similar choice to news publishers: “You’re either for the Internet or against it.” The latter is an unfortunate choice; I hope Mr. Curley and Mr. Murdoch aren’t serious about taking it.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!