The Associated Press (AP) has acquired a reputation for doing marginally dumb things. For example, AP will let you use four words from its copyrighted content at no charge, but quoting five words will cost you a fair amount of money ($12.50 in our example) if for profit.

AP sells five words for $12.50

AP sells five words for $12.50

But before we rush to judgment about AP, let’s just make sure that trying to exert a copyright on five words really is marginally dumb.

Can you get copyright protection on just a few words? Apparently, yes. What matters is not the length but the degree of creativity.1 The phrases “meter drop” and “rolling stock” in a specific context got copyright protection just a few years ago, at least so long as the parties had not yet settled out of court.2 A priori, one has no reason to believe that AP isn’t capable of coming up with short creative aphorisms that might deserve copyright protection.

But it’s hard for news-gathering organizations to come up with such phrases during the normal course of their work. There aren’t that many different ways of talking about elections, assassinations, wars, and airplane crashes. It’s unlikely, we at Finding Fault think, that most short sentences that the AP could come up with would deserve any noticeable copyright protection on their own. To have a blanket policy of asking for $12.50 for five words is a bit silly, it seems to us.

Let’s not forget the “hot news” doctrine, though. According to this much-maligned principle of law, there is value not just in the creativity of words used to report news, but also in their timeliness. Although you can read plenty of discussion about this,3 we get the impression that “hot news” applies only in extreme cases where somebody systematically copies a direct competitor’s headlines or sports scores etc. We doubt that “hot news” would apply in a typical situation where you seek to sporadically quote five or six words from AP.

So we don’t consider it improper to call AP’s five-words-for-$12.50-policy “dumb”.

AP’s website permissions form lets anybody buy a copyright license for anything. It doesn’t have to be any content owned by AP. Just enter any random words, and the website will let you buy a license to use those words.4 You can pay AP to give you a license to use public domain words or even your own words, for example.

It would be make no sense if you did so, of course. Nobody in his right mind would actually knowingly pay AP for a license to use public domain words. And besides, it’s questionable that the license would have any validity, because (a) AP can’t sell you what it doesn’t own and (b) you would simply be exploiting an instance of bad web design. To pay for a license of dubious value given to you by a broken website would be a dumb thing.

Just because somebody else lets you do something dumb is no reason to actually do it.

Or so we would have thought.

But there’s no accounting for what a blogger will do to get more hits.

Not only are bloggers going to AP’s website and paying good money to buy the rights to use public domain material,5 but they are actually being cited with approval by other bloggers.6

And why are they doing this? To prove it can be done, apparently.

Here’s the meta-dialog as we hear it in our imagination:

Website: Licenses for sale! Four random words free, fifth random word for only $12.00. Get yours now!

Blogger: Now that’s pretty dumb. I can buy five random words, even public domain, for $12.00? Yup, that’s dumb. I will take it. Here’s my credit card number.

Website: Um, we’re not the ones acting dumb here sir, you’re the one making the purchase.

Blogger: Got it! Got this license! Now that’s dumb.

Tell you what Dear Blogger,7 there are manholes out there that trap people now and then.8 Next one that you can find with a loose cover, why don’t you jump in, just to prove that it can be done? Try to survive so you can blog about it afterwards.

  1. For a general discussion, see article “Copyright Protection for Short Phrases” date unknown by Richard Stim in website “Copyright & Fair Use” visited 2009-08-03.
  2. A federal appeals court ruled that the phrases “meter drop” and “rolling stock” in a specific context got copyright protection. See Cook v. Robbins 232 F.3d 736 (9th Cir. 2000) at visited 2009-08-04. See book “Intellectual Property Law” by Terence P. Ross, Law Journal Press, 2000, ISBN 9781588520944, p 2-27, where a footnote reads: “Since the case was officially withdrawn from being published, it is not binding law, but it does provide insight into the way in which the Ninth Circuit interprets the copyright holder’s burden of proof.” We found this book in Google Books at visited 2009-08-04.
  3. See, for example, article ‘The AP’s “hot news” lawsuit lives on; are scoops “quasi-property?”‘ dated 2009-02-20 by Joe Mullin in blog “The Prio Art” visited 2009-08-04. AP won that case, as describe in article “AP Defeats Online Aggregator That Rewrote Its News” dated 2009-07-13 by David Kravets in blog “Threat level” visited 2009-08-04.
  4. Sorry, we don’t have a URL. Go to any AP story on the web and look for a “republish” link. Do it fast, because AP articles and their links sometimes suddenly vanish, leaving an error page behind. The web form is actually hosted by a company called “iCopyright”. This company, by the way, is more generous than AP. You can go to (which we last visited 2009-08-05) and get a license to use five random words for a mere $2.50. It would be amusing, wouldn’t it, if you could buy a license here for $2.50 and then sell it to AP for $12.50? Unfortunately, these companies are not as dumb as they appear to be.
  5. Article “The AP Will Sell You a “License” to Words It Doesn’t Own” dated 2009-08-03 by James Grimmelmann in blog “The Laboratorium” visited 2009-08-05. Excuse our hyperbole, by the way, it’s not “bloggers”, but just one blogger.
  6. For example, see article “AP Will Sell You A License To Words It Has No Right To Sell” dated 2009-08-03 by Mike Masnick in blog “techdirt” visited 2009-08-05.
  7. It’s not you, we know you don’t do dumb things just to prove they can be done. It’s all those others.
  8. Article “CHILD FALLS INTO SEWER.; Crossing Montreal Street, Stumbles Into Manhole and Is Swept Away.” dated 1921-03-11 by unknown authors. “Lily, 8 years old, stumbled and fell into an open manhole in full view of the frantic mother. Before the woman had a chance to catch her breath the child plunged head first into the sewer and was swept away by the rushing water, four feet deep at the spot.” In the New York Times archives at visited 2009-08-04. Or just do a web search for the words: -texting fell into open manhole.