Every media executive's fantasy is to be able to scour the entire Internet, see who is using their content, and possibly demand payment or threat legal action—all in a completely automated fashion. A startup called Attributor promises to let them do just that. Today, it just announced its first customer, the Associated Press. "We thought we would start with one of the largest content producers in the world," CEO Jim Brock tells me.
Attributor has indexed 13 billion Web pages and says that it can digitally fingerprint any publisher's content—from the largest media company's to the smallest blogger's—and report back where it appears on the Web. For an organization like the Associated Press which already syndicates its articles to thousands of newspapers and hopes to make 20 percent of its revenues online this year, keeping track of both the authorized and unauthorized replication of its stories is a key priority.
It's a key priority for any media company in an era of superdistribution.
And while sites like YouTube are developing their own copyright databases to help stem abuses, there are always other sites to worry about. Says Brock: "If you are playing whack-a-mole and remove something from one site, it will appear somewhere else. Web-wide visibility is what publishers want."
Brock, a former lawyer and Yahoo executive, foresees different uses for his copyright search engine. Of course, it will make the jobs of media lawyers sending out takedown notices to sites like YouTube and elsewhere a lot easier. But he insists that is not the main point of his service.
"Smart publishers recognize that the blogosphere is the greatest promotional medium ever created," he points out. They just want to be able to track who is pilfering, er, borrowing, their stuff. He says that Attributor is capable not only of monitoring the Web for the appearance of copyrighted content, but also help sort out commercial versus non-commercial uses, whether the content is being given proper attribution or whether there is a link back to the owner's site. Moreover, his goal is to automate the resulting negotiations between content owner and borrower.
"A lot of publishers are holding back," he says, "they are fighting digitization. We’d like to see it set free."
One way he plans to do that is by giving free access to Attributor's content database to hosting sites, ISPs, and ad networks like Google's AdSense. If they know something is copyrighted, they can then block it themselves or choose not to serve ads up against it. Or, better yet, someone like Google already has the capability with AdSense to split ad revenues so that content owners could get their share as well. It just doesn't know where to send the money.
Later this year, Attributor will set up a registry of copyright owners anyone will be able to check against any content found on the Web. There will also be a free version available for bloggers and smaller publishers.
Brock's ambition, he reiterates, is not to become the enforcement arm for the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. "If we succeed," he says, "we think the DMCA becomes a thing of the past. The DMCA is a blunt object. We are just going to try to transplant it with something that serves everybody better."
It's a nice spin, but I'm not so sure most media executives (i.e., Brock's customers) will see it that way. They might be happy with using Attributor as an automatic DMCA-enforcer, and leave it at that.