Rogers Cadenhead, a controversial but long standing figure in the RSS community, has disclosed a DMCA take-down letter he's received from the Associated Press demanding the removal of small excerpts of AP content on his community news site Drudge.com. It's hard to take anyone too seriously who's built a site by squatting on some other sensationalist's name for ten years - but that's what we've got here, a legal spat between a smarmy little social news site and the biggest purveyors of news in bulk in the US (AP). The AP's move could impact a lot of innovation all around the web, however.

Can you run excerpts of your favorite news stories around the web on your website, with links to the full sources in their original location? Standard practice is to excerpt no more than 3 lines of a story out of respect for the original author, but Drudge.com generally played within those rules and is still facing legal trouble.

The practice generally is a great one: a website's visitors get exposed to the most interesting news on a given topic, selected by a trusted editorial website, that website gets cache, traffic and search engine optimization and the linked-to sources get links and traffic. Not everyone is excited about the idea, though.

The Details

Cadenhead explains: "None of the six entries challenged by AP, which include two that I posted myself, contains the full text of an AP story or anything close to it. They reproduce short excerpts of the articles -- ranging in length from 33 to 79 words -- and five of the six have a user-created headline."

Some of the excerpts included in the complaint do seem disrespectfully long, but who's counting? The usually brilliant media critic Jeff Jarvis thinks the best response is to reproduce an AP story in full on blogs around the web but that hardly seems like an appropriate response to a genuinely complicated situation.

Cadenhead writes that the AP has filed suit against two other parties for similar offenses already. "AP has filed copyright lawsuits against the VeriSign division Moreover last fall and another against the Florida company All Headline News this year. I have no desire to be the third member of that club, but sharing links to news stories of interest has become an essential component of how millions of people read and evaluate the news today. When linking to articles, bloggers commonly include excerpts of the article for the purposes of criticism or discussion."

Update: The AP responds in comments below. Feel free to discuss.

Context in a Changing Media World

This sounds like a really stupid legal strategy by the AP, for one thing they are threatening their own inbound links and search juice. Lawsuits and legal threats seem like one of the weakest evolutionary strategies imaginable during a time of intense media upheaval.

Either way, other aggregators should take note. I've done things like this myself numerous times in my private consulting practice and we're seeing a growing number of venture funded services offering this kind of quick aggregation and excerpting functionality to their customers - in some cases major media outlets. (Watch this space Monday night for an in-depth embargoed review of one of the hottest new services along these lines.)

Not at all ironically, we found this story via Gabe Rivera, founder of aggregation service Techmeme, on Twitter. Rivera is probably paying relatively close attention to the story. His site is a great example of terrific value that aggregators can deliver to audiences, and potentially to publishers, through the use of respectfully short, automated excerpting.

There's a certain social contract emerging where readers expect full RSS feeds to be published with the understanding that they will not engage in widespread republishing of the full feeds on other sites. In this case, the AP is not holding up its side of that social contract. Maybe it doesn't want to be a participant in the society of new online media.