This is just a bit bizarre. As the NY Times and others keep moving towards a paywall, it and the Washington Post and Gannett have apparently funded a bizarrely pointless operation called OnGo, which appears to be an excessively limited, high priced, walled garden aggregator. For a mere $7 per month, you can get access to content from those three companies along with a few other big newspapers. Of course, there are limits. You only get the top 20 stories from the NY Times, for example.
Or, you know, you could just use an RSS reader. Or Twitter. Or Facebook. And not pay the monthly fee.
I'm reading through the various details and stories on this project, and the one question I keep asking which isn't answered anywhere is what is the additional value this brings to the table. When the very best that the operation's boss man can do to explain his value proposition is to say "this is another option," you're in trouble. This isn't providing any more value for the (much higher) price. It seems to be targeted at fools, which is no way to build a business these days.
Last summer, you may recall, we wrote about the ridiculous situation of a company called "Gooseberry Natural Resources LLC," which held a ridiculous broad patent (6,370,535) that it claimed covered the basic concept of generating a press release online. The company had sued a bunch of (usually small) online press release services -- some of whom were really struggling to fight the lawsuit. And, to make matters worse, it was not clear who really owned the patent, as there appeared to be a series of shell companies to hide the actual patent holder.
Apparently whoever is behind Gooseberry got tired of simply trying to demand cash from mom-and-pop press release services, and has now decided to sue a bunch of online services, Digg, Reddit, Fark, TechCrunch, and others. What do any of those companies have to do with generating press releases online? You've got me. Of course, some of those sites are pretty good at teaming up and doing good deeds. So, perhaps the Reddit crew might be able to figure out who really holds this patent?
The whole thing looks pretty ridiculous. For example, this is the section on how it claims Reddit violates the patent:
Plaintiff is informed and believes that Advance owns, operates, advertises, controls, sells, and otherwise provides hardware, software and websites for "news and press release services" including via the reddit.com website ("the Advance system", available at www.reddit.com). Upon information and belief, Advance has infringed and continues to infringe one or more claims of the '535 patent by making, using, providing, offering to sell, and selling (directly or through intermediaries), in this district and elsewhere in the United States, systems and methods for entering and providing structured news and press releases. More particularly, Plaintiff is informed and believes that Advance has and/or require and/or directs users to access and/or interact with a system that receives and stores separately specified portions of a new or press release and that assembles a news or press release in a predetermined format.
This is basically the same basic language used against all the sites sued. It's basically a ridiculous attack on lots of well-known tech blogs and news aggregator sites, claiming they somehow infringe on this ridiculous patent. I find it especially amusing that they've included Slashdot in this attack, seeing as Slashdot's system (which really hasn't changed that much over the years) predates the patent filing by a few years. Seems like the prior art on this one is likely to be pretty strong. Of course, fighting a patent infringement lawsuit, no matter how bogus, can be quite expensive. Hopefully these sites are willing to team up and pool resources. Thankfully, most of the sites involved are owned by much larger companies who can (and hopefully will) fight this.
Remember the Associated Press's bizarre and unworkable idea to DRM the news. Well, reader crcb alerts us to the news that the AP is now filling in more details, about how it effectively wants to become the ASCAP of news. Yeah, you read that right. Talk about bad ideas. I'm sure being like ASCAP is appealing from the AP's side, but it makes no sense at all from the publisher side -- especially given the details where the AP gets to keep a 20% cut of any revenue collected this way. As you read through the details, it's as if the folks behind it at the AP don't quite understand the very basic economics of content and the internet:
Curley indicated that the clearinghouse's biggest moneymaking opportunity is likely to be the licensing of copyright-protected content to mobile phones and an array of computer tablets such as Apple Inc.'s iPad and emerging competitors.
Huh? You license content to website or apps, not to platforms... This seems to have absolute disaster written all over it.
There's been this a lot of talk about "aggregators" recently -- often in the context of traditional newspapers claiming that such aggregators are somehow damaging their business. As we've discussed in the past, if you look at the details, there's little evidence that aggregators are really the issue. Instead, many of the complaints appear to be confusing a correlation of their own business declines with the rise of aggregators, and falsely believing there's a causal relationship when there's little, if any, evidence to support that.
However, that's not going to stop ongoing legal actions from those publishers against the aggregators they believe are a problem. One reason for this is that the specific legal situation at times can be a bit vague, as internet aggregators are quite different than past businesses. If you're interested in this subject, you should absolutely read Kimberly Isbell's very thorough look at the legal issues related to online aggregators. She very carefully breaks out the different types of aggregators (though, I'm a bit surprised that people seriously consider commentary blogs to be "aggregators") as well as the specific legal issues facing each of the different aggregators. The problem, which becomes clear, is that the law is not anywhere close to settled on the key issues, and leave an awful lot of key questions up to the interpretation of whatever judge gets the cases in question. We've discussed in the past the idea that it's often possible to take the "fair use" factors and interpret them in either direction (something is or is not fair use), and the same may be true with "hot news" in some cases as well. That's a problem, and makes both concepts somewhat useless and dangerous as well. If you have a law where the boundaries are incredibly vague, unclear, and up to the whims of a randomly selected judge, it leads to potentially damaging situations, where people avoid liability by not even trying to do certain things for fear of getting sued.
The concept of hot news is now being tested in a few different courts, so we can be hopeful that within a few years, perhaps, the courts will dump the concept entirely as a violation of the First Amendment (an analysis that hasn't been done yet), but with that question still up in the air, there's still a chance that a confused court could rule otherwise, creating a massively damaging situation for value added content services online.
We recently wrote about the LA Times being barred by a judge from publishing a photo of murder suspect Alberd Tersargyan that was taken -- with permission -- in the courtroom. As pretty much every legal expert who commented on the case noted, there was almost no way the judge's ban would hold up under a First Amendment review, as it was clear prior restraint. And, indeed, it didn't take long for an appeals court to overturn the ruling and note that it was, indeed, prior restraint. The First Amendment wins again...
As Righthaven continues to file lawsuits, it seems that various lawyers who are concerned about copyright, free speech and chilling effects online have been rushing to help defend some of those sued. I can't recall a situation (even with US Copyright Group) where lawyers have been so eager to take on a company filing copyright infringement claims. Of course, the really interesting part is how some of the lawyers are testing out a variety of defenses to the lawsuits, some which seem to have a much better chance of passing judicial muster than others.
For example, some are claiming that Righthaven has no standing to sue, since it waits until after it's found the infringement to "buy" the copyright to the article in question from Stephens Media/Las Vegas Review-Journal. Others have argued that the lack of any actual damages should get the lawsuits dismissed. Still others have challenged the jurisdiction.
One interesting argument, based on an earlier ruling on the legality of Google's cache, makes the reposting of these articles "fair use." Unfortunately, the fact pattern in that case does appear to be a bit different. It not only involved a guy suing over the Google cache, but that guy also first requested that Google scan his pages, then made the request to visit the cache himself. Still, in that case, Google argued that without a robots.txt blocking them from caching the article, the guy had given implicit permission:
"Even if Google could be viewed as having made or distributed these copies of Field's works, Field impliedly granted Google permission to do so. Field displayed his site on the Internet without including any label, including those that are industry standard, to instruct Google not to present 'cached' links to the pages containing his works," Google attorneys argued.
And, in that case, the judge agreed. So, with Righthaven, these lawyers are claiming the same basic thing. They're saying that the LVRJ gave an implicit license for a similar cache-with-link by putting the content up for free and by failing to limit the ability to copy & paste the text via technical means. On top of that, they point out that the LVRJ explicitly encourages people to "share" the articles on its site (something the LVRJ still does -- including quick links to share it with 19 different services).
This does raise some tricky issues. If Google's cache is, in fact, legal and not infringement, then how is just reposting a story with a link back infringing? But, if reposting a story is found to be fair use, you're about to hear a collective gasp of horror from some online content producers who don't want people copying their stuff. Because of that general conflict, I'm beginning to wonder if some of the Righthaven lawsuits are about to become a lot more important than we initially expected -- and whether or not Google might have a very strong interest in supporting some of the cases against Righthaven.
Digging down to facts tends to be what crowdsourcing is good at. The problem, of course, is that there often are some blurry lines around what is actually a "fact" and what is not. But, given the (some would say excessive) cultural focus at Wikipedia on forcing a "neutral point of view," I could see how a similar group of people could somewhat vehemently focus in on specific facts that can be proven true or false, rather than getting too bogged down in opinion vs. facts debates.
One of the key points we tried to hammer home at our Techdirt Saves* Journalism event in June was the importance of realizing that news organizations are really in the business of building community. So many in the news business focus on the belief that they're in the "news" business, but that's never really been the case. The news has always been the piece that brings together a community (and the business of a news organization has usually been to then sell that community's attention to advertisers). The biggest problem that news organizations face these days isn't scary "news aggregators," but that there are now many, many, many other communities that people can join, and most of them treat their members a lot better. Many traditional news organizations, in contrast, seem to have a rather condescending view on "community." They lock up comments, they complain about readers, and they focus on just delivering the news, not engaging with their community or enabling their community to do anything useful.
As I've reported in this blog before I have had a very long one-sided relationship with the people who watch my newscasts. I talk, they listen. If they had something to say to me they yelled it at the TV screen like Don Quixote tilting at windmills. Twitter changed all that. I can now hear you and I can now answer you...
I can't speak for the dozens of people who check in regularly every night... sometimes at 6 or 7:00.. but mostly 11:00. I don't know exactly what they get out of it except a kind of cool experience of actually conversing in real time with the guy on TV. But I can tell you what I get out of it. For the first time in years I actually feel like I'm talking to someone rather than at them. Frankly it's energizing!
Of course, the next step is to go beyond just talking "to" them and to talking "with" them. But that will come. In fact, getting to that point, Clark explains an amusing way that the community tried to connect with him, picking up on the recent Old Spice commercial meme of "Silverfish Hand Catch!", where some of his viewers started saying that if 100 people retweeted the request, Clark would close the broadcast by saying the line on TV. He didn't get the 100 retweets, and admits that he wouldn't have said it anyways (noting he probably would have lost his job), but he did do an "air" silverfish hand catch surreptitiously, to let folks know he was paying attention.
But, much more interesting was the realization he had while all of this was happening:
It was all a bit silly sure, but I realized something else was going on. The audience of our 11:00 newscast wasn't just talking to me... they were talking to each other! I felt like Alexander Graham Bell when he made his first call to Watson. The backchannel worked!
I know that many folks around here still like to mock and dismiss communications tools like Twitter, but many people are realizing what powerful tools they are for conversations and for building communities where none really existed before. And, in businesses where community and relationships are everything, that's quite powerful for those who figure it out.
We've spent a long time detailing the massive problems that come up when you build up an unnecessary collection society bureaucracy for something like music. Operations like ASCAP lead to massive inefficiencies in the market, greater protectionism and a never-ending quest for more control over perfectly reasonable free uses. And, worst of all, they tend to distort markets in such ways that it harms up-and-coming creators by pricing the venues they rely on to establish themselves right out of the market. So, I have to admit that I'm somewhat horrified to hear that some are now seriously proposing an ASCAP-like offering for the non-problem of online news.
There are so many problems with this suggestion it's difficult to know where to start. The biggest of all, however, is that the "problem" this is seeking to solve hasn't been shown to have been a problem at all. Newspapers and the AP keep claiming that there's an "aggregator problem," but we went looking for it and we can't find it. The problem is that the AP and others change the definition of who's a problem depending on what they're talking about. Sometimes its sites like Google. But Google isn't really a problem because Google shows headlines and barely a snippet. That's clearly fair use and drives traffic (hell, the entire SEO industry depends on that). So, it's not Google that's the problem. At the other end of the spectrum you have scraper spam sites, but those are fly-by-night, get no traffic and aren't "taking" any real ad revenue away from the original content creators at all. Also, they're certainly not going to pay into any ASCAP-like scheme. Who's left? In the middle you have a few smaller players, like Newser, who basically rewrite some stories, but they're tiny.
So what problem is this bureaucratic mess trying to actually solve? I can't figure it out, but putting together a giant bureaucracy will require a ton of overhead, and all that money is pure waste from an economic standpoint. So, before we start talking about an ASCAP for news, can someone please define what the actual problem is? Because it's certainly not this general "aggregator" menace that we keep hearing about.
Someone who prefers to remain anonymous sent over this story about how Associated Press stories hosted on Yahoo News appear to have tons of comments from old stories. It's not entirely clear what's happening, though I have my suspicions (explained further down), but it appears that when new stories are showing up on certain topics, Yahoo is simply copying over older comments from previous stories on similar or related topics. The comments look as if they're about the story posted -- and the only way you can tell they're not is if you notice the date:
I'd go from one Yahoo article to another and notice that regardless of the subject matter, the first user comment was always the same -- at least on AP articles covering the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. The comment that kept reappearing was posted by "Robert" and it was a one liner. "Hamas is now in control of the Gaza Strip after winning an election there against Abbas Palestinian Authority." That was it. Fair enough -- I've got no quarrel with the messenger or the message. But somehow that one comment generated an incredible 184 responses and, last I checked, readers had given it 3212 thumbs up and 2525 thumbs down.
I got a little curious about why Robert's one liner had generated so much controversy. I've written hundreds of articles and never got anywhere near that kind of attention. Frankly, I was full of envy. How did 'Robert' pull this off with one miserly line? Then I noticed the strangest thing: it was dated March 09, 2010. The comment was two months old and was the lead comment of 40,000 responses. That seemed a little high considering the fact that the AP article I was reading had only been posted for thirty minutes.
What were Yahoo and AP up to? The answer is simple; they were porting comments from one article to another and, in this particular case, they've been doing it for two months.
Oddly (and inexplicably) the author of that post, Ahmed Amr, does not link to Yahoo to show this, but it's not hard to find. Here's a story published on June 3rd, 2010 at 9:19pm. Yet, there's that same first comment, from March 9th, at 12:47am. And here's a story published on May 6th at 1:09 pm with the identical comments, also beginning with the March 9th comment. To let you see what they both look like before they change (and I'll explain in a second why I think they'll change) I've turned both of those pages into PDFs, which you can see below (you may have to either download or view at full screen and scroll to see the "comments" at the bottom):
I've also looked around and found really similar things on other stories. While Amr is suggesting there's something nefarious going on with the AP "manipulating" comments (and he specifically calls out the reporters from the AP who he believes are a part of this), I'm going to guess that this is more typical (embarrassing) incompetence on the part of Yahoo, rather than malice.
Take a look at the two links I put above to the Yahoo stories. The URLs (as found by a quick search for the comment string Amr mentioned in his post) are as follows:
Notice something similar? The last bit of the URL string is identical "/ml_israel_palestinian". The only difference is that the second URL, the story from May 6th, inserts two additional directories, with the top one being the date of publication. We already know that, due to a total disregard for the basic principles of the way the internet can and does work, that the AP limits its partners from hosting AP articles for very long. I believe on most sites you can host the articles for a month and then you need to take them down completely. With most sites, what happens is you get a 404 error or page not found (to this day, I can't figure out why they don't at least point you to a place where you can find the missing article). However, it appears that Yahoo decides to recycle the URLs in an attempt to make the URLs simple and understandable. So, any basic story about the Israeli Palestinian conflict might appear under that first URL. For all I know, by the time you're reading this, it's an entirely different story than the one that was published on June 3rd.
After the date of publication, breaking the basic principle of a link to a news story being a link to that news story alone, Yahoo moves the story to a new date-defined directory, and the original URL is freed up for the next story on that particular topic. If this seems stupid and confusing to users and destructive to the very idea of the "link economy" or valuing earned or passed links, you're right. But take that up with Yahoo and the Associated Press.
Of course, here's where the real level of tech incompetence comes in: It appears that Yahoo News' comment system doesn't understand that Yahoo does this. So, it associates the comments to that last bit of the URL string "/ml_israel_palestinian" and the same comments will appear every time that string is used as the final part of a URL string. It's bizarre that Yahoo would do this, but apparently, that's how Yahoo rolls.
Amr suggests that this is part of a planned bit of "corporate fraud" by Yahoo and the AP, perhaps to make it look like certain stories are getting a hell of a lot more comments than they are. He also suggests other conspiracy theories involving pro-Israeli operatives, saying that as far as he can tell, this only happens on AP stories concerning the Israeli/Palestinian crisis. I believe Amr didn't try very hard to find alternatives. On my very first attempt to find an example related to something entirely different, I found the identical behavior. I just picked a popular story that likely would have multiple stories over multiple days: the BP oil spill in the Gulf. Then I looked for an AP story hosted by Yahoo News... Bingo.
The first news story I found was published on June 3rd at 2:28 pm, but the first comment on the story? Why it's from May 1st at 2:06am. And the URL? The string ends with "us_gulf_oil_spill_947." You can find the identical comments on this story which was published May 21st, but ends with the string "us_gulf_oil_spill" suggesting that Yahoo's comment system also ignores numbers at the end of that final URL part in replicating its comments.
And here's another story about the White House's response to the oil spill. Published June 3rd at 11:57 pm. First comment? May 10, 2010 12:58 pm. URL string? "us_gulf_oil_spill_washington_9". And here's a story from May 17th with the identical comments at the end, with the closing URL string "us_gulf_oil_spill_washington_1." Yup, Yahoo seems to just match up comments with pretty simple URL hashes.
You can see all of that below as embedded PDFs:
So while it's easy and tempting to ascribe this to "manipulation" and suggest malice on the part of the AP or Yahoo or whoever else (Israeli operatives? Seriously?), it seems pretty clear that this is more due to technical incompetence on Yahoo's part, somewhat driven by the AP's ridiculous "delete this story after x days" licensing policies.
Update: The AP got in touch to make it entirely clear that this is entirely Yahoo's incompetence and not its own:
The Associated Press distributes news content to Yahoo! News, but the display of AP stories and the curating of comments are entirely up to Yahoo!
While undoubtedly true, in the comments we've heard from multiple people who work at news sites that license AP content, and they note that AP has a weird feed process, whereby it gives a simple slug like the ones used above, so that it can force update stories, often leading people to see stories totally change over the course of the day. This is clearly a Yahoo issue, but AP's policies don't help.