Associated Press claims to own Thomas Jefferson’s words

August 3, 2009

Update:  See comment from Mr. Higginbotham; AP claims machine error and not arrogance.

Potential collisions are delicious:  Associated Press versus the Library of Congress’s “Thomas” legislation tracker;  Associated Press versus the Supreme Court for quoting the Declaration of Independence.

Associated Press versus the Southern Baptist Convention and Holy See for quoting the Bible, in phrases Jefferson used in his mashup of the New Testament.

Sotomayor either doesn’t know what she’s in for, or she saw this coming and is going to relish the ride.

James Grimmelman at The Laboratorium has been tracking AP’s attempts to wring pennies out of penniless bloggers and scholars for using AP product.  On the one hand, AP certainly deserves credit and payment for the great work it does reporting the news.

On the other hand, AP policies don’t seem much concerned with reporting news or creating new product that can make money for the organization, but instead seem bent on punishing people who read Associated Press stories.  (Full disclosure:  I make it a point to avoid AP stories and images on topics of my interest just to avoid the conflict — oddly, I’ve found that this actually does shift my news sources on major stories.)

Grimmelman caught AP red-handed in what must be a much embarrassing gaffe:  He asked permission from AP to quote from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson which AP had not published.

Sure enough, AP told him he owed them $12 to quote the letter, and AP offered to restrict the uses of the letter.

Grimmelman said:

The Associated Press has become so deranged, so disconnected from reality, that it will sell you a “license” to quote words it didn’t write and doesn’t own. Here, check it out:

Screen capture of Associated Presss charging for a Thomas Jefferson letter in the public domain - The LaboratoriumScreen capture of Associated Presss charging for a Thomas Jefferson letter in the public domain – The Laboratorium

These things threaten to put hoax makers out of business. Who could think of something so absurd? Grimmelman said:

I paid $12 for this “license.” Those words don’t even come from the article they charged me 46 cents a word to quote from (and that’s with the educational discount). No, they’re from Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Isaac McPherson, in which Jefferson argues that copyright has no basis in natural law.

(A commenter notes that Jefferson was actually writing about patents, but close is good enough in hand grenades and freedom of the press and freedom of thought.)

Grimmelman has more thoughts (and links to his earlier work on the issue)Boing-Boing did a cover of Grimmelman’s piece.

James Grimmelman pwns AP instead.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Dr. Pamela Bumsted.


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