June 15, 2024

AP's DRM Announcement: Much Ado About Nothing

Last week the Associated Press announced it would be developing some kind of online news registry to control use of news content. From AP’s press release:

The registry will employ a microformat for news developed by AP and which was endorsed two weeks ago by the Media Standards Trust, a London-based nonprofit research and development organization that has called on news organizations to adopt consistent news formats for online content. The microformat will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational “wrapper” that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.

The registry also will enable content owners and publishers to more effectively manage and control digital use of their content, by providing detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services and enforcement support. It will support a variety of payment models, including pay walls.

It was hard to make sense of this, so I went looking for more information. AP posted a diagram of the system, which only adds to the confusion — your satisfaction with the diagram will be inversely proportional to your knowledge of the technology.

As far as I can tell, the underlying technology is based on hNews, a microformat for news, shown in the AP diagram, that was announced by AP and the Media Standards Trust two weeks before the recent AP announcement.

Unfortunately for AP, the hNews spec bears little resemblance to AP’s claims about it. hNews is a handy way of annotating news stories with information about the author, dateline, and so on. But it doesn’t “encapsulate” anything in a “wrapper”, nor does it do much of anything to facilitate metering, monitoring, or paywalls.

AP also says that hNews ” includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online”. This may sound like a restrictive DRM scheme, aimed at clawing back the rights copyright grants to users. But read the fine print. hNews does include a “rights” field that can be attached to an article, but the rights field uses ccREL, the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language, whose definition states unequivocally that it does not limit users’ rights already granted by copyright and can only convey further rights to the user. Here’s the ccREL definition, page 9:

Here are the License properties defined as part of ccREL:

  • cc:permits — permits a particular use of the Work above and beyond what default copyright law allows.
  • cc:prohibits — prohibits a particular use of the Work, specifically affecting the scope of the permissions provided by cc:permits (but not reducing rights granted under copyright).

It seems that there is much less to the AP’s announcement than meets the eye. If there’s a story here, it’s in the mismatch between the modest and reasonable underlying technology, and AP’s grandiose claims for it.


  1. I agree that this seems to be a fairly grand way of stating that the technology employed will be far from groundbreaking. At least the result is hopefully something where the copyright applied to such online media will not be too crushingly restrictive. MartinT

  2. I write about technology and business – in other words I have to translate these sort of press releases all the time.

    Also knowing the current media business as I do I would put this explanation forward.

    Associated Press is fed up with its stories being reported in other papers with a note saying ‘AP reports that…’

    They’re looking for a way to prevent the wholesale copying and pasting of the text from their stories – see bobsguide.com for examples of this.

    I believe they think this system will alert them to their copy being posted on other peoples sites so their lawyers can bill them for its use.

    ‘Opportunities’ is a euphemism for ‘sales’ or ‘lawsuits’ in the corporate world. Pretty much anything else is a ‘challenge’.

  3. Anonymous says

    I agree – the PR team at AP could have toned down the marketing language. At the end of the day, it’s just an application of a microformat.

  4. Dr Felten said: “It was hard to make sense of this

    You are not alone sir. I find AP’s claims and counterclaims on their intellectual property to be totally incomprehensible.

    AP made a claim that I and others interpreted to mean they could copyright any five words they strung together, even if others had done so before. After that bit of inanity I would ignore anything that AP has to say on the subject, but for AP’s size and the likelihood that they can influence what Congress decides to do on the subject.

    As a question to your well informed followers I would ask if someone has noticed any news organization including a “robots.txt” statement in their web pages?

  5. Would it be reassuring or frightening if higher-ups at AP believed what was in the press relase?

  6. John Millington says

    Maybe they’re going to extend ccREL to include some other possibilities than cc:permits/cc:prohibits combos. It’s not like you can stop them from marking up their content however they want. The worst that’ll happen is that someone’s (poorly done) parser might break.

    If I were designing a way to markup the licensing of content, I might pull an existing close-but-not-perfect microformat off the shelf too, even if it was made by people with different goals than roll my own.

    But it doesn’t “encapsulate” anything in a “wrapper”, nor does it do much of anything to facilitate metering, monitoring, or paywalls.

    Just mark something with cc:requires. Now the client knows that they’re supposed to meter, monitor, get payment, etc. Sure, it ain’t DRM as we know it (thank goodness), but it communicates their desire to a cooperative client, sort of like the old “broadcast flag” idea (except without anything like a FCC mandate). Maybe their lawyers are satisfied with that. If they distribute content and someone “misuses” it, they can say “we told you what you were supposed to do and you knew it, so we’ve totally got you on negligently infringing our copyright. Don’t say it was just a mistake!”

  7. Anonymous says

    The AP’s diagram bears a strong resemblance to this: http://www.penny-arcade.com/comic/2001/06/22/