Meltwater says AP’s copyright lawsuit threatens all search engines

Meltwater has filed a response to the Associated Press’ copyright lawsuit by saying that it’s simply a sophisticated Internet search engine, and it hasn’t violated copyright law by indexing AP stories.

In its copyright infringement lawsuit, AP called Meltwater a “modern-day clipping service.” For $5,000 a year, Meltwater enables clients to search news stories for mentions of keywords and to receive email digests that contain portions of relevant news stories. AP contends Meltwater is undercutting its business by providing its content without paying AP for it.

Meltwater’s defense is important, as Nieman Journalism Lab’s Justin Ellis reported, because courts have treated search engines and clipping services differently in regard to copyright law.

By attacking a search engine, Meltwater contends, AP “challenges one of the core functions of the Internet.”

Search engines, which index online content and provide information about its existence and location in response to users’ search queries, have existed since the earliest days of the Internet and are essential to its operation. Meltwater offers just such a search engine, which allows its corporate and institutional customers to discovery, analyze, and educate others about information in the news media relevant to their businesses.

Meltwater says numerous times in its response that it does not provide users full-text versions of stories. Instead, it provides a headline, a “short snippet of text” surrounding the search term, and a link to the original article.

AP claims in its lawsuit that when you add up the headline and those snippets, Meltwater clients can obtain a significant percentage of a story, and that with the right series of searches, a client could obtain the full text of a news story, even if it’s no longer available online.

AP also claims that clients can use Meltwater’s search-result saving feature to copy the entire text of stories to their Meltwater account. Techdirt’s Michael Masnick sizes up that argument:

Because users can cut and paste AP stories from their original websites and “save” them in a Meltwater archive, Meltwater is guilty of violating copyright law. Under that argument, so is any email program or word processing program.

Meltwater’s legal response echoes what Jens-Petter Glittenberg, co-founder of the company and director of business development, told me shortly after the lawsuit was filed. Unlike Google, he said, Meltwater does not enable users to view cached versions of news stories. So if the URL to the original article is broken, or the story has been moved behind a paywall, the reader cannot use Meltwater to access it.

“We are not in the business of distributing content,” he said. “We are in the business of selling the knowledge that such content exists.”

Meltwater also claims that the AP’s announcement of the lawsuit has disrupted its business relationships and scared away prospective clients.

Current and would-be Meltwater customers have cited AP’s accusations as a basis for not subscribing to Meltwater News or for otherwise limiting their relationships with Meltwater.

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  • Steffen Konrath

    From inside knowledge I have in similar cases (not initiated by AP) it is a strategic and logical step if you’ve started to prepare a much larger lawsuite against search engines, e.g. Google. There are more services in the market which use similar mechanisms to make full text articles searchable although they only show portions of it. If AP would win this lawsuit, we can expect more to come in the near future.

    - Steffen Konrath
    Future of Journalism