Associated Press will sell you a license to quote the public domain

James Grimmelman sez,
The Associated Press -- which thinks you owe it a license fee if you quote more than four words from one of its articles -- doesn't even care if the words actually came from its article. They'll charge you anyway, even if you're quoting from the public domain.

I picked a random AP article and went to their "reuse options" site. Then, when they asked what I wanted to quote, I punched in Thomas Jefferson's famous argument against copyright. Their license fee: $12 for an educational 26-word quote. FROM THE PUBLIC FREAKING DOMAIN, and obviously, obviously not from the AP article. But the AP is too busy trying to squeeze the last few cents out of a dying business model to care about little things like free speech or the law.

They tell me I have to use the sentence "exactly as written" and heaven help me if I don't include the complete footer with their copyright boilerplate. Along the way, their terms of use insisted that I'm not allowed to use Jefferson's words in connection with "political Content." Also, I can't use use his words in any manner or context that will be in any way derogatory" to the AP. As if. Jefferson's thoughts on copyright are inherently political, and inherently derogatory towards the the AP's insane position on copyright. I require no license to quote Jefferson. The AP has no right to stop me, no right to demand money from me. All their application does is count words to calculate a fee. It doesn't even check that the words come from the story being "quoted."

The AP Will Sell You a "License" to Words It Doesn't Own (Thanks, James!)


  1. I think it could be quite humorous to extract an easily recognizable quote from some extremely litigious rights holder, submit it to the AP’s incredibly stupid application and get permission from the AP clearly stating that they own the copyright AND have given you permission to use it.

    Let the fun begin.

    There is NO excuse for the way the AP is going about this.

    Tomas – University Place, WA

  2. I was under the impression that it was fair use, in the United States at least, to quote from articles for educational use without paying any money. (Also several other uses including commentary which may be more public) Are they implying that there is no case of fair use?

    And say if you wanted to use a quote from an article on some political topic you wouldn’t be able to use it politically with that copyright “agreement/boilerplate”?

  3. This may be laughable now, but it also gives some very scary insight into how some of these corporations would like things to be.

    This reminds me of a post awhile back about “corporate optimism”.

    At a garage sale a few months ago, I brought a first-gen SONY portable music player (they wouldn’t dare call it an “mp3 player”, because it refused to play any non-encrypted ATRAC music)

    Manufactured around 2001, the instruction manual was rife with stupid buzz words and talking of “checking in and checking out” music, and talk of “protection” (drm)
    Basically, what I got from it was that after you ripped a cd using SONY’s software, you were only allowed to copy the track to your music player a total of three times.

    It’s really audacious what they think they can get away with.

  4. In essence, AP are claiming to own content that belongs to someone else. Sounds awfully like theft.
    Makes you wonder how much else the Associated Press are stealing from the public.
    It appears that they’re trying to shore-up a business model that’s being evolved out of existence with an even more broken business model.

  5. @2: Yes, if you ignore their licensing offer and just quote under fair use, you’re fine. By taking a license and paying them money, you get less rights than you would if you took it (legally) for free.

  6. It’s a bit much to expect some little software package to figure out what is in the public domain and what is not. That’s what copyright lawyers are paid to know. In this case, sure, it looks to me as if it’s in the public domain – but you’re expecting a software package to know the quotation’s source; know the date of publication; know the current state of copyright law; and apply the law to the facts.

    I have a lot of sympathy with arguments that copyright law goes too far – but I simply can’t summon any sympathy with this act of manufactured outrage.

  7. The news is a description of facts. And, according to:

    “The facts in history or science books, and facts in the news are not copyrightable. For example, if I were to write a history of Hurricane Katrina, the facts that I reported would not be copyrightable. My particular expression of those facts would be protected, but not the facts themselves.”

    If you quote somebody else’s expression of news facts, that’s their stuff.
    If you start with the facts *and cast them in your own words*, that’s *your* stuff.

  8. @5: “It’s a bit much to expect some little software package to figure out what is in the public domain and what is not.”

    Likewise, it’s a little much to expect software to be able to distinguish between fair use and infringement. And yet, here is the AP, purporting to offer a piece of software that does just that.

    Nevertheless, it would be possible for the AP to check quotations against its list of published material. The fact that they choose not to illustrates their vast contempt for the public domain, the public’s rights in copyrights, and the principle of fair use.

    The AP created this mess by imagining that it is possible, desirable, or legally necessary for educators, bloggers, or news entities to take licenses for brief quotations that qualify as fair use (and if you read the material they post around their licensing engine, you’ll see that they essentially say that you should never rely on fair use for quotation and should pay for every single quotation, no matter how trivial).

    If there is an act of manufactured outrage here, the sign over the factory gates surely reads “Associated Press, Inc.”

  9. Joe In Australia is right. I think this story would be better if you’d contacted the AP PR dept and asked them to get someone responsible for the rights policy to comment.

    Not least, it’s important to smoke out the individuals in an organIsation who actually make the decisions.

  10. Cory Wrote:
    “(and if you read the material they post around their licensing engine, you’ll see that they essentially say that you should never rely on fair use for quotation and should pay for every single quotation, no matter how trivial).”

    This parenthetical is the real story. That software doesn’t parse knowledge well is not an outrage it’s a fact. It’s the claim that you should never rely on fair use that’s worth an article.

  11. The saddest part for me is that someone might legitimately be trying to cover their ass legally, and decides to pay up not realizing that the AP has no legal domain over the content in question.

    It’s the journalistic equivalent of pumping out a million spam emails in the hope that some unsuspecting sucker will bite 10% of the time and line their pockets, in an effort to recoup lost revenue as a result of lower readership in general.


  12. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect that when someone sells a licence for some content they first check to make sure they actually own the content they are licencing. If the software can’t do that then they shouldn’t be using it to sell licences.

  13. Interesting– looks like the AP’s not actually trying to enforce anything or claim anything as its own: the fellow typed his quote into a box labelled, essentially, “Tell me what of our stuff you’re trying to quote”. Arguably, _he_ claimed that the AP had the copyright by doing so and the AP software played along.

    At most, a trap to scam a sucker out of a few bucks. I’d save the moral outrage.

  14. @16 I took it to mean that he was saying that the app didn’t even check to see if the text he was quoting was from the story he was supposedly trying to quote from. Which probably should be in there if only for error checking. It seems incredibly lazy that that at least isn’t there.

  15. @5: Maybe the software package cannot be reasonably expected to identify if content is public domain, but it CAN be reasonably expected to know what its operator actually owns, and hence can sell. In other words: check aganst owned database, if not in there, reply “sorry sir, we don’t seem to own the copyright on this content, so we are not entitled to sell you a licence”

  16. @17- Lazy, or just efficient? Assuming there’s no particular reason to assume that selling useless licenses is illegal (“Hey, do you have a walking license for lower Manhattan? I can sell you one, cheap.”), there’s no reason for them to even bother to check.

  17. @18 I’d say lazy or poorly decided. It certainly makes them look less professional. I can’t see where it’d tax resources that much at all for a company that probably already has pretty high traffic as it is to do some simple error checking or implement a different way to select text for the license. Say highlighting the text to be used and using some code to detect that.

    And selling useless licenses and deceiving people into believing that they are necessary is probably some form of fraud. I don’t pretend to know if it would be actionable legally in the case of what the AP is doing.

  18. @19- You have to admit, though, it takes a bit of effort to get a useless license out of the thing. Somehow I doubt the designers suspected that someone would, in the process of trying to buy a license, type in something completely unrelated to the article and in public domain and then shell out the bucks for the result. Somehow it’s hard to claim the hypothetical licensee has been deceived. He’s just found a glitch, and would have to pretend monstrous stupidity to claim he was at risk of being defrauded.

    Not that the AP’s not ridiculous on the subject, but I’m not reading this quirk as global malice.

    “I found a rat in my hamburger!”
    “Did you not put the rat in there yourself?”
    “Yes, but the mere fact that the hamburger will allow you to add a rat…”

  19. Victor Lustig sold the Eiffel Tower. Twice. Not that he owned it…

    Now that is the sort of scam artist that AP should be looking up to! Four words? Pathetic!

    Why don’t they start charging people for content that they are about to publish? That’ll be fun! They could charge Obama for his own speeches! That’s way more profitable. And of course Obama should pay a licence for each person hearing, reading, being told about or remembering the content!
    Four words…

  20. Well, they’re saying that ‘the entire excerpt should be used exactly as written’, so I guess they should at least check whether the text submitted is present in the article as a simple courtesy. This is simple a lazy way of making a quick buck.
    And I do think that it is, in fact, illegal to sell non-existant licenses like a ‘sidewalk permit’ in most countries.
    Since it’s part of the AP’s core business to sell licensing fees, they should also create a system to distinguish public domain content from original content in their articles. If they want to demand respect for their work they should also respect the public domain.
    If Getty Images can go through the trouble of tagging and indexing their entire image catalog, the AP can do the same for their articles. It should even be simpler, since it’s text.

  21. AP seem to think they can be Clear Channel-type overlords of assets that they don’t own but are doing a favour for (by broadcasting them).

  22. @20 I agree that they probably didn’t think that someone would deliberately try to use something that wasn’t in one of their articles but they should have at least error checking in their to make sure they aren’t quoted incorrectly which I would expect would probably catch this sort of deception.

    “like um, this isn’t in the article you’re trying to quote from lol. Have you made a mistake?” Maybe they’d choose something more fitting with their purpose, but the idea would be the same.

    And the fraud wouldn’t come into the picture with the deliberate deception of their licensing program or engine, but with asserting that their users need a license at all for many of the uses a short quote like that would be used for. At least in the US. Actionable? Probably not, but it does make them look ridiculous like you said.

  23. Cory says that “the AP is too busy trying to squeeze the last few cents out of a dying business model”. How do you know this is true? After all it really doesn’t matter how crazy your business model is as long as you can enforce it and get the state to do it for you.

    That walking license for lower Manhattan? That works if the the courts and the police enforce it for you.

  24. “Use of this Web site is conditioned on the acceptance, without modification, of all terms and conditions of this agreement”

    Yeah, right.
    – imma

    pretty innate to the internet? :
    “Responding to the request from my computer for a copy of your website indicates a willingness for that content to be transferred to my computer via others leading to several copies being distributed and it being interpreted by my browser and displayed on my screen in a manner that may not be exactly it’s original design, hence by setting up a server deliberately to do so you are required to accept your content being both shared & modified.”

  25. I’d be interested to hear what the lawyers among Boing Boing’s readership think about the concept of selling something that you don’t own.

    If, for example, I sell you a license to cross the Brooklyn Bridge (despite the fact that I do not own the Brooklyn Bridge), am I committing fraud?

    If I sell you a license to purchase an orange that belongs to my grocer up the street … am I guilty of a crime?

    If I sell you a license to quote words I didn’t write and don’t own the copyright to in the first place, am I guilty of fraud?

    I think any court would find the AP’s attempt to sell licenses to written materials it does not own to be a massive attempt at fraud.

    Further, any companies that would be participating in and profiting from such a fraud (for example, the AP member newspapers) could be prosecuted under the RICO statute as co-conspirators, should sufficient legal pressure be applied by concerned or cooperating prosecutors.

    I’d recommend that folks quit BITCHING about fraudulent license schemes and start suing. We have courts available to us to prosecute and punish the AP … but only if we use them.

  26. #24 No business model based on deception can be supported indefinitely. Even if the government “enforces” said model, common every day people eventually prevail. Music theft, for example, the way the model “works” now is that in small doses, using scare tactics and ignorant judges/juries, the RIAA have been suing individuals for downloading and distributing songs. This is like trying to squeeze water from a stone. They may break a few stones, but the most water they’re going to get is what’s on the very surface.

    It’s the same for this, and it’s the same for a walking license in Manhattan. In the walking license example, you would be laughed at by anyone you tried to sell one to, and if you somehow got the law to enforce it, eventually the injustice would become public knowledge and legislature would bring change. Ideally. Those wheels turn slowly, indeed, but the internet is proving that there are just too many people to govern and not every single one of them can be tracked for their suspicious activity, there isn’t enough man power to do the tracking.

    As more and more of the world gets wise to the idea that copyright, as it stands, is a broken system, more of the world will stand up for those being beaten down by that system, and those institutions that have used scare tactics and attempted to control access to what, in all reasonable eyes, SHOULD be public domain will begin to collapse under the weight of their own bullshit.

    It’s a slow process, but it’s beginning. As far as I’m concerned it can’t happen soon enough.

  27. @25 Caldrax- Copyright goon squads and their owners (RIAA, MPAA, AP, etc, etc)donate money to legislators. In general, people getting the shaft by copyright laws do not. There’s one point against your chances there.

    On the other hand, politicians do respond to being voted out of office but– and it’s a big but– are copyright issues big enough to be dealbreaker issues for most voters in the way that abortion or economic policy are?
    Would you ever, say, vote for a Republican who supported rational copyright laws over a Democrat who had many a meal at the RIAA’s table?
    If the answer’s no…where’s your Democrat’s motivation?

  28. Trying to claim blanket copyright protection no matter whether you own stuff isn’t exactly new. As part of getting images for historical Wikipedia articles, I have often run across government (!) archive websites claiming all sorts of copyright over material that is clearly out of copyright according to their own factsheets!

  29. For the politicians, I don’t think it’s about the contributions. The politicians have always desired the power of imprimatur for themselves. If they can make an end run around constitutional restrictions on that power by collaborating with a copyright cartel, they’ll do it. Sharing the power with the cartel owners is better than lacking it entirely.

  30. Cory,
    You weaken your argument by focusing on empty stunts. This guy went pretty far out of his way to find an obscure web page, on which he fibbed, in order to give the AP money for something the AP isn’t seeking payment for.

    What’s relevant is the AP’s position on fair use, not the implementation of html forms.

    I’d say more about this… but first I must go and mail a $20 bill to someone I don’t owe money to, so that I can attack that person for taking my money.

  31. If it is the APs position that the licensor has no duty to verify ownership of the license before granting it, and that sale of the license can not be construed as proof the AP actually owns the content, this opens up an interesting business opportunity.

    Why not market a service granting licenses to the AP’s content? Sure, you don’t own the content and the license would be useless, but that doesn’t stop the AP from selling licenses, why should it stop you? (Of course, there’s no defense in fraud to say the one of the defrauded parties was also committing fraud.)

    The AP’s licensing is clearly dubious and not thought through. Per Tomas, it seems like it would open up all sorts of liability, even ignoring the attempt to circumvent fair use.

  32. Two problems: Jefferson was talking about something else, and he disagreed with you.

    This quote is not a “famous argument against copyright,” except among those who fundamentally misunderstand copyright. Copyright does not protect “ideas;” it protects specific, unique expressions of ideas. This is the basic principle of copyright law.

    If you take the trouble to read the rest of Jefferson’s comment you’ll see:

    (a) that the principles he was discussing apply to patent law, and

    (b) he recognizes that it is perfectly legitimate for societies to regulate these matters.

    Jefferson goes on to say, “Inventions then cannot, in nature, be a subject of property. Society may give an exclusive right to the profits arising from them, as an encouragement to men to pursue ideas which may produce utility, but this may or may not be done, according to the will and convenience of the society, without claim or complaint from anybody… The exclusive right to invention [is] given not of natural right, but for the benefit of society.”

    And by the way, AP is just another big bureaucracy. The fact that stupid things come out of bureaucracies is not news and doesn’t prove anything.

  33. @30: From a comment on the FA:

    n the other hand, consideration of everything Jefferson wrote about copyrights and patents leads to the conclusion that Jefferson viewed copyright in exactly the same way. For example, one of Jefferson’s rare explicit mentions of copyright comes in an 1816 letter to Samuel Kercheval:

    I am entirely in sentiment with your letters; and only lament that a copy-right of your pamphlet prevents their appearance in the newspapers, where alone they would be generally read, and produce general effect. The present vacancy too, of other matter, would give them place in every paper, and bring the question home to every man’s conscience.

    Here Jefferson clearly recognizes that copyright can sometimes act to prevent the diffusion of knowledge.

  34. I have an opinion of the AP. Can you guess what it is?

    No? Then I’ll give you a hint: I have the same opinion of the horse they rode in on.

  35. if the evil forces of unreasonable copyright do get the upper hand, I wonder what effect that will have on the flavour or art and culture produced? I suspect that the milder more law-abiding will just give up altogether, as inadvertent infringement will be impossible. Perhaps the loss of their moderating influence on our mutual cultural pile will result in a meaner, nastier zeit geist and will lead to more war. In the interests of peace and safety, I therefore urge everyone to stab a copyright lawyer in the heart with an HB pencil (#2)

    1. I therefore urge everyone to stab a copyright lawyer in the heart with an HB pencil (#2)

      Piffle. 6H.

  36. Jefferson was indeed writing about patent law in his letter to Isaac McPherson. But it would be ignorant and faithless to conclude that therefore Jefferson would not have applied the same principle mutatis mutandis to copyright. Jefferson was writing at a very high level of abstraction in his letter to McPherson, and everything else he ever wrote about copyright and patent indicates that he viewed copyrights in the same way as he viewed patents: as “embarrasments” (that is, burdens or encumbrances) that sometimes might be worth the trouble, and sometimes might not. See Mockingbird’s comment over at James Grimmelman’s blog.

  37. So an alternate description of this linked article might be: “Guy finds longest, wankiest way to say ‘AP quote license system is a fancy word counter, has nothing to do with content’ ”

    Excellent. Excuse my while I go froth in the mouth in rage because dinosaur makes dinosaur-like moves.

  38. You choose to enter the AP website and use their tools – they want a fee, that’s reasonable, you knew that going in, what’ the surprise?

    You could have just as easily used freely available resources to find the same quote – you choose not to.

    Also, let me be the first to point out that many publishers charge for books of FREAKING PUBLIC DOMAIN works, nothing new here (though I am curious about searching AP archives, but the fees look a wee-bit high for my interest).

  39. So, perversely, the AP should “redact” public domain information from their archives, since they can’t license it?

    What the popular sentiment here seems to be is that the AP needs to go line-by-line through it’s stories and flag passages as small as a few words long if they could be considered “public domain”, and then if a selected quote is all “public domain” there is no license fee, if it is 100% non-public domain, they charge a license fee, and if it is a mix, they pro-rate the license fee, based on the number of “private” words are in the quote? Really?

    The answer is to not look to AP for public domain quotes, as the original poster did – why? Was the AP really around reporting on Thomas Jefferson back in the day? Why would it ever occur to anyone to go to the AP for a Jefferson quote?

  40. jphilby mentioned that you can’t own historical facts, as in history books – I have seen very few facts in history books lately, what I see more and more are “facts” (opinions dressed up as fact), but I doubt that is to protect their copyright of the book. ;^)

  41. From “Payment Demands for Spurious Copyrights: Four Causes of Action”, Journal of Intellectual Property Law, vol. 1, 1993-1994, p. 259, discussing the case of Tams-Witmark Music Library v. New Opera Company, 81 N.E. 2d 70 (NY 1948)

    An opera company purchased the right to perform the opera The Merry Widow for $50,000 a year. After a little more than a year of performances, the company discovered that the work had passed into the public domain several years before due to a failure on the part of the copyright holder to renew the copyright. It ceased paying royalties, and after being sued by the owner of the abandoned copyright, counterclaimed for damages in the amount paid to the owner on a breach of warranty/failure of consideration theory. The trial court awarded the opera company $50,500 in damages, and the court of appeals affirmed the judgement, finding that The Merry Widow “passed, finally, completely and forever into the public domain and became freely available to the unrestricted use of anyone….New Opera’s pleas of breach of warranty and total failure of consideration were established, and by undisputed proof

  42. how about if every single human on the planet protects all mention of their name, reference to their acts or quoting of their words? I never gave these AP jerk-offs permission to write about me, they better not! Let’s see them pay for their “news”.

  43. Of course, copyright sometimes prevents the diffusion of knowledge. Patents sometimes prevent beneficial improvements. Ownership of land sometimes causes people to go hungry. There are always tradeoffs, and all laws are subject to abuse. It doesn’t follow that all laws should be abolished.

    The social/political/legal system is supposed to balance tradeoffs, respect the rights of all parties, and allow us to live in a reasonably secure, predictable world.

    You would make a greater contribution to public discourse if you would refrain from passing along half-baked attacks like this one. Since you help to shape the ideas of a lot of people who are interested in this issue, you might acknowledge that when people misuse the system, that does not mean the system is evil. And I think it would be even more beneficial if you acknowledged the great difficulties inherent in trying to balance so many competing interests, and in promulgating rules that will bring about fair results in an infinite number of unforeseeable situations.

  44. @48 Joelister:
    But those are still arguments against copyrights, patents, and land ownership. The reason we keep them around is because there’s also arguments for them.

  45. So… if you were willing to pay, you could have AP issue you a license to quote it saying something like: “The AP is a news organization that is motivated by money and we are willing to make up news, censor reporters who report news that might negatively affect our bottom line and flout fair use and copyright law for profit.” (Or something along those lines that was more clever, funny and cutting.)

  46. well Joe; “a reasonably secure, predictable world” like one where those that have the power and money keep it? Forever?

  47. joelister,

    You’ve got a mouth on you for someone who just popped into a discussion that’s been transpiring on BB for many years. Why don’t you learn a little bit about Cory’s stance on copyright before you make any more baseless accusations.

  48. The social/political/legal system is supposed to balance tradeoffs, respect the rights of all parties, and allow us to live in a reasonably secure, predictable world.

    If a secure predictable world is what you want, you’re on the wrong world.

    I think you’ll have better luck fighting gravity than you will ever have fighting human nature.

  49. Glad to see that all points of view are welcome here. Perhaps you could point out the “baseless accusations.” I’m not seeing them.

  50. The AP’s memo is unsatisfactory. It still does not explain why the licensing software doesn’t first VERIFY that the words to be quoted are actually in the article being quoted before it issues a license and charges a fee.

  51. Joelister, I’ve literally written an entire book about the difficulties of attaining balance and the pluses and minuses of the system:

    In addition, I’ve written literally thousands of posts on the subject here:

    I’ve even written submissions to various regulatory agencies and treaty-making organizations on the subject, eg:

    BillDrew: You’ve mistaken “pointing out the absurdity of a half-baked idea” for “sensationalism.” A sensationalist would imply, for example, that the AP might sue you for failing to license Jefferson. Whereas a legitimate and pointed criticism often involves pointing out the humorous ways in which the system fails miserably.

    Indeed, the most sensational thing in this thread is the accusation of sensationalism itself.

  52. Did the AP perhaps consider that they were granted fair use of this quote due to the nature of their writer’s ability to use fair use and therefore, the publishers did not have to pay the Jefferson Estate when they published the quote on the wire, nor did they have to pay royalties for the quote every time they were paid for their AP filler news services. Any other artist would have to pay fees and royalties because fair use (even in satirical works) is heavily challenged with defamation, plagiarism, use without consent, or some such nonsense every time someone makes reference to another musician- or their estate’s- pieces, a TV show or a movie, and the legal team wants to control their brand. Recall the move by Matt Groening- of all people- suing a tiny indy art mag- Bunnyhop- for using the image of Binky the Bunny from Groening’s “Life in Hell” comics beating the holy crap out of the Trix Rabbit (Binky won over the sugar junky Groening probably modeled him after- you’d think he’d be pleased). The irony is that Groening and not General Mills pursued the suit, though “The Simpsons” regularly parodies pop culture within the safe cocoon of their Fox Corporate staff of lawyers, I guess- whom they also regularly defamate and satirize. Screw the AP. Public domain cannot be co-opted. Copyrighted works may be quoted and published as long as they are cited correctly. They may be parodied. And the precident is well established in the high courts. The sick irony comes when satirists and news organizations “dedicated to the public good” come in and ruin a poor artist or writer due to their brand image, their insistence that even poor students conducting statistical studies not only pay the full fees for the article, but pay royalties to the author because AP can no longer give them the benefits they expect, and/or their lack of a sense of irony or willful ignorance thereof.

  53. “If nature has made any one thing less susceptible than all others of exclusive property, it is the action of the thinking power called an idea.”

    Excuse me, I think I hear someone knocking at the door.

  54. #60 – Anonymous – Damn, that is quite a paragraph!

    You can quote public domain sources freely (of course), and Copyrighted sources with proper citations, but if your quote citation points back to an AP new source, not so clear… (you are admitting you got the information from them, and they charge, so…)

  55. … besides the ‘theft,’ AP is also hampering discussion by requiring that writers get clearance and pay a fee, especially as they’re a prime source of news.

    ps Would one have to get permission to use a recent quote, from a politician, that they report on, e.g. Something Obama said in a speech. Really outrageous if that’s the case. Almost feel like I’m being muzzled.

    Good discussion here.
    – Ken (too lazy to create an account)

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