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The ‘Creative’ Technology Behind The AP’s News Registry

This post originally appeared on Techdirt.

The Associated Press’ attempt to DRM the news is a bad idea for a variety of reasons, but its claims for the news registry’s capabilities seem pretty misguided, once you examine the technology behind it (the “magic DRM beans”). Ed Felten dug into the details of the registry’s microformat, hNews, which the AP announced a few weeks earlier, and here’s where it gets really interesting: the hNews rights field is based on the Creative Commons Rights Expression Language (ccREL).

If the AP thinks it’ll be able to build its “digital permissions framework” with Creative Commons technology, it’s in for a letdown.

I’m not sure if I’m “allowed” to quote the press release, but this is how it describes the news registry:

[It] will tag and track all AP content online to assure compliance with terms of use. The system will register key identifying information about each piece of content that AP distributes as well as the terms of use of that content, and employ a built-in beacon to notify AP about how the content is used[...]

The registry will employ a microformat… [that] will essentially encapsulate AP and member content in an informational “wrapper” that includes a digital permissions framework that lets publishers specify how their content is to be used online and which also supplies the critical information needed to track and monitor its usage.

The registry also will enable content owners and publishers to more effectively manage and control digital use of their content, by providing detailed metrics on content consumption, payment services and enforcement support. It will support a variety of payment models, including pay walls.

Microformats provide a syntax for expressing machine-readable licensing metadata in the HTML of a web page. ccREL was intentionally developed so that others could innovate freely on top of it, but the AP is trying to use it for something it’s simply not designed to do — “protect” and control. The Creative Commons has responded, explaining that ccREL is a tool for rights expression, not rights enforcement. (That doesn’t mean the AP isn’t allowed to try this, but it’s not going to work very well… it’s like trying to lock a door with posters.) Felten described the AP’s claims for the microformat as much ado about nothing, saying “the hNews spec bears little resemblance to AP’s claims about it,” and the Creative Commons clarification echoed the point:

Microformats and other web-based structured data, including ccREL, cannot track, monitor, or generally enforce anything. They’re labels, i.e. Post-It notes attached to a document, not locked boxes blocking access to the content.

There’s no “encapsulating” or “wrappers” — it’s just annotation.

This ecosystem of technology is about rights expression, not enforcement, and it’s more about telling people what you can do than what you can’t. There are tools built on top of Creative Commons technology, like FairShare, that “track and monitor” usage of content across the web, but these are search engine tools (similar to Google Alerts) rather than any sort of “built-in beacon.” Other tools, like Tynt’s Tracer (which Creative Commons blog uses), use javascript to append attribution and licensing information when you copy/paste, but that’s hardly a “wrapper.” These tools are based on the idea of granting permission, not requesting it. Participation is not enforced; anyone can remove or adjust metadata before reposting HTML, Tracer’s attribution is just plain text that can be changed (as I did when quoting the blog here), and FairShare can’t actually stop anyone from posting your content. These tools are based on a decentralized, permissive view of the web; they aren’t designed to create centralized registries and exert control.

If you re-read the AP’s description of the technology, it sounds a lot less scary, but a lot more hopeless. The tools are designed to convey further rights to users beyond what copyright allows, not further restrictions that limit user rights already granted by copyright law (e.g. fair use). This is a great way of tagging news articles, but it’s next to useless as a digital lock. They would be smart to employ this technology to make their content more usable and more valuable, but hoping it’s going to help them lock it down will only lead to disappointment.

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