Analysis: Publishers assert content rights

Publishers are preparing to take search engines, particularly Google, to task over content ownership and copyright with the announcement of a new, global initiative.

The European Publishers Council (EPC) recently announced plans to launch a scheme that will give publishers greater control over their content and prevent search engines earning revenue off the back of publishers' content.

The scheme, which is backed by the International Publishers Association, the European Newspapers Association and the World Association of Newspapers, aims to avoid the on-going dispute between search engines and publishers through the introduction of the Automated Content Access Protocol (ACAP). This is a software-tagging system that will outline the conditions for how the content can be used.

Angela Mills Wade, executive director of The European Publishers Council, says the scheme aims to put an end to the on-going problems with copyright breaches by search engines and is not a knee-jerk reaction to the Google and YouTube deals.

"This is something we have been working on for a while. We discovered that quite a lot of publishers were not putting a lot of content online because they weren't quite sure what was going to happen to it," says Mills Wade.

"Even those publishers who were putting content online were doing it with a sort of reluctant knowledge that it might get taken and used by other parties. The driving force was that we could make more content available online.'"

The tagging system will mean that content will carry a clear explanation of how it can be used by aggregators and distributors, so, ideally, it should avoid copyright breaches.

Mills Wade says the EPC has spoken with search engines including Google, Yahoo and MSN about ACAP and received positive feedback.

Good start

Publishers have also responded well. Simon Waldman, chair of the UK Association of Online Publishers (AOP) and director of digital strategy at The Guardian, believes the ACAP initiative is a good start. However, he thinks the challenge for the industry is to produce a system that acknowledges the value that publishers provide to search engine aggregators.

Waldman says: "We have to acknowledge that we depend on, and get, traffic referrals from Google, MSN, Yahoo - that's just the way the web works. But, I think there is time for a grown-up debate about a fair attribution of value for that.

"I think we, as publishers, know we operate in an increasingly distributed web where content can be accessed from all sorts of places away from our site. We need to make sure its value is appreciated,'" he adds.

Waldman says the ACAP is trying to avoid rights abuse and the publication of content without permission, which is a good start for the industry, but he warns that publishers will have to do more.

He adds: "This is the future shape of the content landscape and we need to develop models that work in this new landscape, and that means different relationships with search engines, particularly with aggregators.'"

Speaking from his perspective at The Guardian, Waldman believes the issue becomes more complex when looking at aggregators such as Google News. He says there is a need for some kind of structure between publishers' rights and distributors, as in the music industry.

"I believe the use of our headlines, etc, makes Google News an entity in its own right from which commercial value can be drawn. We might very happily have our content featured on Google News, but we believe we should have some sort of conversation about it."

While Google acknowledges the issue of revenue sharing is an interesting area, it maintains that it is irrelevant to Google News as it doesn't carry ad content. "Were there ads then we could have that discussion,'" says DJ Collins, head of corporate communications at Google UK, Ireland and Benelux.

Drive traffic

According to Collins, Google News aims to drive traffic to publisher's web sites, and the search company is not interested in being a publisher or content owner.

"We don't want to own it, we don't want to produce it; we want to drive people to it," says Collins. "We want to help content owners and publishers get the biggest possible audience for their information as they possibly can." He argues that Google News offers a great service to publishers by driving traffic to their sites and promoting their products.

"Far more publishers ask to be included in Google News than ask to be removed," says Collins. "It expands the audience for the copy and drives a lot of traffic to web sites. If I'm an ad manager of a newspaper web site, that's good news.'"

"We only ever publish the snippets. You click on the link and go straight through to the publisher's web site. We don't store the information on our site - we don't cache it or anything like that.'"

Collins says Google is open to the ACAP proposal and working with the EPC. But, he says the key issue is how it will build on the existing technology such as Robot.text and No Archive, which, when included in the header text, means that Google and other search engines will not archive or search the page.

"Robot.text is the universally accepted standard for the internet, which automatically prevents the indexation of content. We certainly honour it and every reputable search engine honours it. If there is a new proposal, we would be particularly keen to understand how it builds on the technology already available because we feel the technology available does the job. If it builds on that, then let's look at it,'" says Collins.

Gavin McGinty, a lawyer specialising in IT and e-commerce at Pinsent Masons, agrees that the ACAP proposal looks very similar to a lot of the standards already in the market, but he says ACAP is trying to create something more granular.

"Rather than saying don't search, don't list or don't archive the page, they want to say well, you can list the page, but only if you take this content and list it in this way."

According to McGinty, the wider issue is the copyright legalities and whether Google is infringing them. The search company is currently in court with Belgian publisher CopiePress, which believes Google is infringing copyright through Google News.

Copyright infringement

"It is a question of whether what Google is doing is copyright infringement and we haven't worked that out yet," he explains. "If it is in copyright infringement, it will want this ACAP initiative as much as anyone else.'"

McGinty believes the ACAP system could prove to be effective, particularly if Google was to work with EPC.

"They are almost like a news source themselves - I think the search engines have more protection. That's why CopiePress has gone against Google News," adds McGinty.

"As you know, everyone seems to pick on Google for very obvious reasons, but it also tends to be the one pushing the boundaries in these things."

Mills Wade maintains that ACAP is not about punishing Google, but aims to create a workable solution for all search engines and publishers.

"It's not a Google problem. Google, in a way, is the incarnation of this problem at the moment, but it's not just a Google problem. The search engines, and Google in particular, have been highly innovative. It's no secret that Google has sought to develop these products and services that have set it up against publishers, so we need a solution for that and it knows that and it agrees with us.'"

Music industry

The publishing industry could look to the moves being made within the music and entertainment industry, for example You-Tube's recent licensing deals with Universal Music, SonyBMG and US TV network CBS.

These agreements will see the companies license video clips and music videos to the video-sharing web site in exchange for a share of ad revenue. Warner Music Group and Sony BMG have also signed similar deals with Google, which has its own video-sharing site, Google Video, and also now owns YouTube. Google has indicated that there will be more deals to come.

These deals are a step in the right direction towards the legitimacy of YouTube, which has been under threat of litigation due to its huge vault of unlicensed content.

However, Waldman cautions that while the YouTube and Google deals present a "very valid model", there is a world of difference between the music and news industries.

"I think the difference with news organisations is that, if you go to Google News, for example, it is using thousands of different news sources. You want to be able to make sure some system is put in place so that Google, or whoever, isn't having to go and strike deals with every publisher because there are too many of us," adds Waldman. "It's time to start thinking about how to standardise that."

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