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Aug. 28, 2018, 12:54 p.m.
Business Models
LINK:  ➚   |   Posted by: Shan Wang   |   August 28, 2018

It is the year of our lord 2018, and the words “The Associated Press” and “journalism blockchain startup” have now appeared in the same sentence. Part of their new intersection, reported by Digiday, is pretty boring — the AP is licensing its stories to the 14 publications currently attached to the aforementioned startup Civil, just as it does with plenty of other outlets. The other part is a little more interesting: The two companies will coordinate on a blockchain-based effort to let Civil newsrooms track the flow of their content and enforce licensing rights. The AP is also getting some CVL tokens, the currency of the Civil ecosystem that also gives their holders a voice in governing the editorial activities within that ecosystem, though that public sale has now been pushed back to September 18. (Hope you’ve been studying for the quiz.)

As Digiday describes it, the arrangement is primarily a way for the AP to find new customers. And Civil gets an alliance with a big established player:

The arrangement gives Civil access to the AP’s experience in licensing, business practices and product design. The AP gets access to potential new customers through Civil’s network and a chance to learn and adopt the emerging blockchain technology. (Civil is committed to building the tech; the AP hasn’t formally committed to being involved in the building.)

“People who are creating content aren’t in control of it in any way,” Matthew Iles, Civil’s founder and CEO, said. “What this all boils up to is content creators to to be able to get credit for work wherever it’s published and more efficiently track the chain of value and ensure people are getting name credit and compensation.”

Jim Kennedy, svp of strategy and enterprise development at The Associated Press, said finding new customers for the AP’s journalism was its primary interest in Civil, but protecting intellectual property was important, too.

“Right now, we send something out on the internet, and we can’t really track it in all the ways it’s consumed,” he said. “When you’re licensing content to a legacy media company, you can pretty well track it. But on the internet, it’s never been easy. When we do contracts with people, we establish their rights to use it, and they’re generally followed. But when it’s published, it’s freely available for people to scrape and cut and paste. It used to be, we just worried about people using it for free. Now there’s this whole element of people using it for fake news and misinformation. This presents an opportunity to have a real track record of who’s allowed to publish content and how it’s being used.”

Civil says an actual product will be available in a few months, and any publications on Civil will likely get to use a version of it for free.

All of these are longstanding problems on the internet that are aching to be solved. But the announcement is light on what the actual, describable solution will look like, but not to worry — something something something blockchain. (Sorry, Civil’s done the good thing of giving some of the money it’s raised to good publications, including local ones, and is interestingly also looking to support Asia-based media startups. I still struggle to understand with each announcement what exactly is getting built.)

The AP faces a somewhat different set of digital concerns than a more direct-to-consumer digital publisher. Yes, it’s the creator of huge amounts of content, but it’s more importantly their distributor — both to paid-up licensed partners and, less pleasingly, to people who copy/paste AP material for their own purposes. Maintaining control over — or at least having insight into — all that distribution, licit and illicit, is a longstanding goal.

If you were reading Nieman Lab back in 2009, you may remember THE BEACON, an earlier attempt at building a technological solution to a problem baked into the web. Here’s part of how an AP strategy document described it at the time:

Core to AP’s plan is identifying and protecting its news assets…This past year, AP developers created a standardized news “microformat” to ensure that every piece of content can carry key pieces of metadata, plus AP’s terms of use and a “digital beacon” to track usage…

When AP distributes a news item, that content will be wrapped in a container that will include rights information and a tracking beacon that will send reports back to the core database each time the item is clicked on by an end user. The beacon will identify each piece of content, the IP address of the content viewer, the referring Web server and the time of use. The content will also be wrapped in a simple piece of code that will travel with the content wherever it is posted on the Web and that spells out, in both human and machine-readable forms, what may and may not be done with the content.

THE BEACON wasn’t much more than a bit of JavaScript that was easy to strip out with a quick ctrl-c. THE BEACON (sorry, Nieman Lab style on this was set back in 2009) evolved into a separate copyright-enforcement company named NewsRight, headed by former ABC News chief David Westin and with partners across the news industry. NewsRight died a quiet death about a year later.

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