Broadcast Rights and Wrongs

The Associated Press has launched a preemptive strike of sorts against radio and television stations that may unknowingly violate copyright law during their coverage of breaking-news stories.

It has become common practice for some music-oriented radio stations and smaller operators without access to a network or AP news feed to strike an agreement with a local television station to rebroadcast TV audio during major news events. Problem is, the television station may not have the right to make such a deal, and the radio station almost surely doesn't.

"For the most part, I think these are honest people who just don't know that they may be violating the law," said George Galt, director of business affairs for AP.

While Galt waxes diplomatic, some members of the AP Broadcast Advisory Board are livid.

"An outfit like the AP or CBS News or CNN exists only because of radio and television stations that are willing to pay year in and year out. Music stations that come in at the last minute and want something for free are freeloaders," said James Farley, vice president, news and programming, at all-news WTOP-AM/FM Washington and a vice president of the AP advisory board.

AP has sent letters to its clients admonishing them to think twice before routinely permitting other stations to retransmit their signal that might include AP material. Other content providers, including ABC News Radio and Westwood One—the distributor of NBC, CNN and CBS radio news services—have circulated similar warnings to affiliates.

Galt cautioned that, even if both parties to a retransmission deal are AP clients, there can still be problems. "They may not be licensed for the same type of content on both stations. It's a lot simpler if they just come and talk to us first."

AP plans to send "cease-and-desist" letters to stations it finds carrying its content illegally, he said. If the violations continue, the news cooperative is prepared to take stations to court if necessary. Stations found guilty of flouting U.S. copyright law can be liable for up to $150,000 damages for each violation.

It may be hard for stations to shroud their activity. Galt said AP clients and bureau staff regularly report suspected violations.

Stations can avoid problems, Farley said, by striking a deal with a content provider in advance. "AP has gone out of its way to come up with a low-cost minimal license."

The Associated Press has added dozens of stations to its client list since 9/11. Westwood One recently announced an agreement to license its NBC Radio news service to 50 stations owned by Cumulus Media.

This copyright dispute is but the latest to embroil the AP. In 1999, the wire service prevailed in a legal dispute that resulted in the closing of States News Service, which operated a small competing news-distribution service to radio stations. SNS shut down after AP complained that its contributors were routinely pirating AP content.