Copyright Clearance Center ready to compete with AP’s News Licensing Group

The Associated Press is nearing the end of a long and winding road in developing a content registry and an independent news licensing agency. The wire serviced announced Thursday that its board has approved final plans and that a summer launch is scheduled.

But as AP goes to market with the high-profile service, it will find an established competitor vying to hold a big share of that business.

Copyright Clearance Center (CCC) has been harvesting royalties for re-use of material for more than 30 years. Most big newspapers are among its clients. There is room for multiple vendors in the field, a senior CCC executive told me last month, but AP may find the new venture tricky to perfect.

Fred Haber, CCC's general counsel, said in a phone interview "there are two distinct sides to the business." Enforcement involves tracking down unauthorized uses and sending "nastygram" notices to pay up. But the real money comes from establishing an efficient system that matches a large number of payers with a large number of content providers.

CCC's specialty is the latter, Haber said. The nonprofit center often contracts with high-tech specialists in content tracking like Attributor to identify unauthorized digital uses. (AP is also an Attributor client).

"What AP seems to be doing is feeling its way to doing both together," Haber said. He added that the payment half is both technically complex and dependent on a critical mass of providers and re-users.

"It costs money to do this well," Haber continued, "and it costs more money than you think when you start." A technical glitch or two, he added, can cripple an otherwise well-crafted system.

AP spokesman Paul Colford said the wire service preferred not to comment on CCC as a competitor or Haber's take on the business. But in Thursday's news release, the AP did rename what it had been calling a clearinghouse so it is now labeled instead a "licensing agency."

AP has been working on what it first called a digital cooperative, then a news registry, since 2007.  It developed what one AP executive called "a watermark" to detect lifts of its own articles and visuals or those of member newspaper organizations or broadcasters.

The registry was launched in 2009. AP said that it has since signed up 1,500 publishers to have content "tagged" before posting it on their websites.

Then last October AP President Tom Curley announced in a speech to the Southern Newspapers Publishers Association "our intent to create an independent rights clearinghouse for news publishers to manage the distribution and use of their content beyond their own Web properties."

Curley said that AP had concluded the venture should not be AP owned and operated as originally planned but was not specific about why not.

His SNPA speech and later comments to the annual conference  of Associated Press Managing Editors at Poynter suggested that catching content pirates was a simplistic and dated view of the rights business.

There is commercial value to tracking usage patterns on "the open Web," Curley argued, as well as re-uses for which a fee is charged. And he said the system must be adaptable to mobile smart phones and tablets on which progressively more news will be consumed in coming years.

That may be a perceived weakness of CCC, which built its base business in the print era, with a particular focus on unauthorized photocopying from academic journals and books.

Haber said, however, that CCC moved into tracking electronic uses in the late 1990s and now licenses uses in "multiple channels," including mobile and tablet. "But we've found if you try to make contracts specific to devices, a new one comes along before you're done. For us, mobile is just another kind of computer."

The CCC business is built on good faith compliance by academic institutions, large companies and law firms, Haber said, all of which want to play by the rules "out of fear or out of respect for copyright law."

Operating mainly on "an honor system," he added, "we have had $215 million in the past two years pass through our hands."

My own sense is that the newspaper business -- despite periodic legal spats -- has evolved past saber rattling, catching content pirates and threats to sue Google to treating re-use as a source of analytics and as a revenue stream.

Attributor's website claims that 75 percent of those it identifies re-using content without permission voluntarily pay a fee or take the content down.

Curley said in his SNPA speech that some of the impetus for moving ahead to develop a new clearinghouse structure came from a member survey feasibility study by the Newspaper Association of America.

John Sturm, NAA president and CEO, confirmed that in a phone interview. He told me that simply contracting with CCC was considered but did not work out as an option.

He added that NAA involvement stopped with "teeing it up" for the AP and its collaborators and that he was not aware of technical or business challenges which may have developed.

The upshot should not be much longer in coming. Now that AP's board has signed off on the launch plan, the test will be whether  the new service is judged a better rights mousetrap by publishers.


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