Attributor's "Fair Share Consortium" got a fair amount of pub (Attributor's "Fair Share Consortium Completes Newspaper Trifecta") last year with a blindingly simple idea: monetize illegal use of copyrighted news content. That's otherwise known as anti-piracy as business development, one of favorite web jujitsu strategies.
Rather than huff and puff about taking down unauthorized usage, threatening uncertain court action, just make money on it. The notion: go to the ad servers providing the ads against the unauthorized content, and get them to share a piece of any ad money with original publishers, taking it from the distributor's share. That was last year, and little progress has been made on that point. Two reasons, at least. First and foremost, Google and Yahoo -- the two major ad servers here -- haven't embraced the notion. Sure, they say, we want to help out those beleaguered publishers, but, hey, it's complicated, so let's take another meeting, and another, and another. Secondly, for publishers, "anti-piracy" isn't the first thing on their to-do lists; avoiding (or emerging from) bankruptcy is. Further, they've cut back staff, so even if they signed on with Attributor as many did, their use of the Attributor system has been haphazard.
So the Redwood City-based start-up is trying a different approach. They've dubbed their new service "FairShare Guardian." In the next 90 days, they'll be in their trial phase of it. What's the same: Attributor will still monitor editorial content use, comparing publishers' content to its usage on the web, determining and reporting what's licensed and what's not. Now, though, publishers can "outsource" (for a monthly subscription fee, based on how much content Attributor is monitoring) to Attributor the follow-through. If Attributor finds illegal use -- and that's not "fair use" by a longshot, meaning at least 80% of an article is used without authorization -- it will pursue the matter. First, one notice letter to the offending website, then, a second, and then, notice to both the ad servers serving ads onto those pages hosting the content and search engines pointing to it. It's a roundabout way of saying: pay up.
Google and Yahoo routinely get such notices under the DMCA, and word is they respond well. Here's the 90-day question to watch: If Attributor's numbers are close to right, pointing to "112,000 near-exact copies of unlicensed articles by more than 75,000 unlicensed sites" in a recent 30-day period, how will Google and Yahoo respond to a flood of thousands of notices? Google will only say it responds to DMCA notices, but won't say how many it processes regularly.
It's essential to see this new initiative in a broader context: most news publishers are trying to re-gain mastery of their content, digital mastery. They had total control of it in the print world, being among the most vertically integrated industries, from in-house reporting and ad selling to printing and delivery. On the web, though, they early cast their content out there, hoping to increase the catch of advertisers and readers. As their sophistication about the digital ecosystem has evolved, they are trying to regain mastery. You can see them applying some basic journalistic principles - 4 Ws and an H -- here. About their content, they want to know: who is using, where they're using, when they're using, why (a tougher question) they're using and how they're using. Answering those questions means better content management systems and better tagging and tracking systems.
Attributor is part of that puzzle, aimed at monetizing only the most egregious taking of intellectual property -- whole or nearly whole stories or posts.
More broadly, we can see the AP Registry initiative and the Europe-based ACAP project aimed at the same mastery goals. We can see the same principle in how Hearst is using Nstein. In New York, Dow Jones President Todd Larsen recently told me the company would continue to expand its use of the Eidos content management system across content groups, with the same notion in mind. Finally, the New York Times announced it has partnered with Denver-based Thought Equity Motion to gain some sense of mastery over its burgeoning video.
Mastery doesn't mean locking up the content for most of these companies, though some blogosphere reaction to any Attributor or Registry plans would lead you to believe otherwise. Knowing more about your content, and its usage, is a tool -- a vital one -- as these companies try to take a nuanced view of how to play in the next stages of the web, especially the potential of the mobile, tablet-enabled web. “We are not trying to take ourselves out of the digital ecosystem," NYT Publisher Arthur Sulzberger took pains to point out at the paidContent2010 conference.
What the Attributor system does offer publishers is one look into content usage. A few more than a dozen publishers, including Reuters, are signed on for the 90-day trial, Attributor CEO Jim Pitkow told me. If the 90-day trial works -- let's see how Google and Yahoo respond -- the idea could expand from there.