Details are emerging about the scheme that the Associated Press, the world’s largest newsgathering organization, announced back in April to protect its content and crack down on “free riders” that use it without permission. Last Thursday, the AP’s board approved a plan to integrate a set of technologies to address the problem, including a set of metatags or “microformat” called hNews and Attributor’s text fingerprinting.
The AP developed its microformat in house as a means of accomplishing two things: providing standard metadata to search engines to help them improve search results, and specifying rights. HNews is based on the microformat hAtom. One of its components is a rights expression language called hRights, which in turn is based on ccREL, the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language. CcREL is able to express Creative Commons terms such as required attribution as well as extended commercial licensing terms.
The AP is building a news registry around the microformat, and it hopes that some of its affiliates will use the news registry to facilitate discovery and tracking of their content as well. It claims that the effort is complementary to other standards efforts, most notably ACAP.
It’s true that ACAP is designed for a slightly different purpose than hRights. The purpose of ACAP is to indicate rights that search engines have to index content and display it in search results; for example, an ACAP tag set may specify that a search engine can display a snippet of a news story in search results and only for a week after the publication date. In contrast, hRights is a more general-purpose rights expression language.
Nevertheless, I can’t help but feel that the AP’s impressive effort will eclipse ACAP. The main reason is that hNews offers something fundamental that ACAP doesn’t: an incentive for search engines to adopt it. The standard metadata in the microformat is an actual benefit to search engines, and Google has expressed interest — at least in theory.
There are other reasons why hNews should eclipse ACAP. One is that hNews is built on technology with ties to Creative Commons, which could make it applicable to a flood of user-generated content from sites like Flickr. Another is that news publishers can only support a limited number of metatag sets on their content, and hNews/hRights is more general-purpose than ACAP.
The hNews microformat will contain what the AP calls a “beacon,” which a web-crawler will use to find its content throughout the web and flag unauthorized uses. The AP has not yet said what steps it will take when it finds free riders or how it intends to allow for potential fair uses.
Of course, this scheme doesn’t actually protect content; it only attaches searchable metadata to it — metadata that a determined free rider can easily strip off. That’s where Attributor comes in. Attributor’s technology uses “text fingerprinting,” or sophisticated pattern matching, to find instances of its customers’ content throughout the web and flag it in similar ways. The AP was one of Attributor’s original customers; Reuters is also an Attributor user.
The AP intends to launch the news registry and hNews technologies in phases over the coming year. It is offering the technology as an open standard and has gotten the endorsement of the Media Standards Trust, a UK-based nonprofit organization for advancing the cause of journalism.
If the AP can launch this scheme successfully over the coming year, it should easily emerge as the publishing industry’s preferred approach to online rights management. It has all the right pieces in place, including technology that is built on open standards, is designed to solve practical problems rather than boil the ocean, and has incentives for almost every legitimate entity that wants to participate.