The AP's effort to impose some guidelines on the free-wheeling blogosphere, where extensive quoting and even copying of entire news articles is common, may offer a prominent definition of the important but vague doctrine of "fair use," which holds that copyright owners cannot ban others from using small bits of their works under some circumstances. For example, a book reviewer is allowed to quote passages from the work without permission from the publisher.
Fair use has become an essential concept to many bloggers, who often quote portions of articles before discussing them. The AP, a cooperative owned by 1,500 daily newspapers, including The New York Times, provides written articles and broadcast material to thousands of news organizations and Web sites that pay to use them.
Last week, The AP took an unusually strict position against quotation of its work, sending a letter to the Drudge Retort asking it to remove seven items that contained quotations from AP articles ranging from 39 words to 79 words.
On Saturday, The AP retreated. Jim Kennedy, vice president and strategy director of The AP, said in an interview that the news organization had decided that its letter to the Drudge Retort was "heavy-handed" and that The AP was going to rethink its policies toward bloggers.
The quick about-face came, he said, because a number of well-known bloggers started criticizing its policy, claiming that it would undercut the active discussion of the news that rages on sites, big and small, across the Internet.
The Drudge Retort was initially started as a left-leaning parody of the much larger Drudge Report, run by the conservative muckraker Matt Drudge. In recent years, the Drudge Retort has become more of a social-news site, similar to sites like Digg, in which members post links to news articles for others to comment on.
But Rogers Cadenhead, the owner of the Drudge Retort and several other Web sites, said the issue goes far beyond one site. "There are millions of people sharing links to news articles on blogs, message boards, and sites like Digg. If The AP has concerns that go all the way down to one or two sentences of quoting, they need to tell people what they think is legal and where the boundaries are."
On Friday, The AP issued a statement defending its action, saying it was going to challenge blog postings containing excerpts of AP articles "when we feel the use is more reproduction than reference, or when others are encouraged to cut and paste." An AP spokesman declined Friday to further explain the association's position.
After that, however, the news association convened a meeting of its executives at which it decided to suspend its efforts to challenge blogs until it creates a more thoughtful standard.
"We don't want to cast a pall over the blogosphere by being heavy-handed, so we have to figure out a better and more positive way to do this," Kennedy said.
Kennedy said the company was going to meet with representatives of the Media Bloggers Association, a trade group, and others. He said he hopes that these discussions can all occur this week so that guidelines can be released soon.
Still, Kennedy said that the organization has not withdrawn its request that Drudge Retort remove the seven items. And he said that he still believes that it is more appropriate for blogs to use short summaries of AP articles rather than direct quotations, even short ones.
"Cutting and pasting a lot of content into a blog is not what we want to see," he said. "It is more consistent with the spirit of the Internet to link to content so people can read the whole thing in context."
Even if The AP sets standards, bloggers could choose to use more content than its standards permit, and then The AP would have to decide whether to take legal action against them. One important legal test of whether an excerpt exceeds fair use is if it causes financial harm to the copyright owner.
"The principal question is whether the excerpt is a substitute for the story, or some established adaptation of the story," said Timothy Wu, a professor at the Columbia Law School. Wu said the case is not clear-cut, but he believes that The AP is likely to lose a court case to assert a claim on that issue.
"It's hard to see how the Drudge Retort ?first few lines' is a substitute for the story," Wu said.
Kennedy argued, however, that The Associated Press believes that in some cases, the essence of an article can be encapsulated in very few words.
"As content creators, we firmly believe that everything we create, from video footage all the way down to a structured headline, is creative content that has value," he said.
But he also said the association hopes that it will not have to test this theory in court.
"We are not trying to sue bloggers," Kennedy said. "That would be the rough equivalent of suing grandma and the kids. That is not what we are trying to do."