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Copyright Cops Gain New Weapon: Attributor Corp.
Posted On June 11, 2007
"That’s mine! Hands off!" The cry persists as digital technology continues to erode the efficacy of intellectual property rights. Now, Attributor Corp. ( offers to scan the Web for text, audio, video, and images belonging to its clients. Using a technique called "digital fingerprinting," Attributor can match a snippet of client content against its Web page indexes to locate usage. After reviewing the alerts and contexts of identified users, clients who discover unauthorized uses can either ask for the removal of material from Web sites or arrange authorization, including license revenue options. Attributor’s first major client is the 161-year-old news cooperative the Associated Press (AP;, which will start with monitoring text but then expand the testing to other formats, e.g., photos and video. Organizations that share or distribute editorial content or information through AP will also use the services. AP and Attributor will also explore co-developing and co-distributing applications.

The digital fingerprinting at Attributor, also referred to by the company as Attributor "DNA," lets clients assign rules of use for specific types of content—rules that may specify the quantity of content available for reuse, the kind of attribution required, and terms for commercial use. The Attributor system can not only report instances of use but also whether rules were honored. After finding an unauthorized use, the system offers clients options ranging from removal to licensing requests and then monitors responses to those actions. It also supports Creative Commons license provisions.

Co-founded in 2005 by CEO Jim Brock, former senior vice president of communication and consumer services at Yahoo!, and chief technology officer Jim Pitko, former CEO and chairman of Moreover Technologies, Attributor is privately held with more than $10 million in funding from five venture capital investors: Sigma Partners, Selby Venture Partners, Draper Richards, First Round Capital, and Amicus Capital. According to Rich Pearson, senior director of marketing at Attributor, these VC firms include former backers of Google, Skype, and Overture.

Attributor maintains Web indexing for more than 13 billion pages. At present, it does not monitor peer-to-peer networks such as iTunes. Pearson said, "We are driven by our customers. We’ve been talking to publishers. There is still concern about peer-to-peer, but the main focus is the Internet at large." For its AP monitoring, Attributor will target a few hundred more popular stories and then focus on frequently updated Web sites. Although the company continually monitors its indexed Web pages, it targets specific sites, e.g., news sites that update more frequently. "It’s not one size fits all," said Pearson. "It’s based on matches and content."

The Attributor service offers considerable detail on content usage. "When we show results, for example, 100 people reusing content," said Pearson, "we don’t just list 100 matches. We provide a context-sensitive analysis, showing which matches have ads and are monetizing, which have proper attribution and send you back to authored content or show links back to a site. The owner can define the rules of attribution. We also tell how similar your content is to what’s used. Was it all or 50 percent or 10 percent?" Pearson indicated that Attributor could even match content if it were only a link, though the service does not offer that now ("an easy modification").

Srinandan Kasi, general counsel for AP, saluted the services as "part of the next-generation licensing and enforcement services we plan to provide to our global network of members and subscribers. Our agreement with Attributor will enable AP to safeguard its investment in creating and distributing news reports, while assuring licensees that unauthorized use will not diminish the value of their licenses." Relying on fees paid by member newspapers and commercial media for its revenue, AP has become more vulnerable as online advertising finds its way to sites using unauthorized copyrighted material. However, AP intends to try negotiating licensing agreements rather than litigating or removing material. With the usage assessment that Attributor’s monitoring will provide, AP should also be able to better assess how Web sites want to use its content.

"Attributor aims to bring transparency and accountability to the online content economy. As one of the largest producers and distributors of online content, AP is a perfect first implementation for our highly scalable platform," said Brock. "In addition to helping publishers of all kinds protect the value of content assets for authorized licensees, we will also help them capture additional editorial and advertising value."

Fees charged by Attributor vary. According to Pearson, "Fees are based on the amount of content monitored. It would cost more to monitor 1,000 articles than 500." However, he added, "We want to keep it affordable to be sure anyone creating content who is interested in where it is appearing, even a blogger or a professional photographer, can depend on our content. AP is the largest daily content producer on the planet, but we still want to provide some functionality that is very affordable and even free." So far, Attributor has not yet defined what it will offer as free, but, according to Pearson, it is considering different options, including ways to let people find the original owner. This year, Attributor plans to establish an open registry of copyright owners. "Nothing is free now, but we plan to offer not only inexpensive, but free," said Pearson.

Attributor alleges that building confidence in online publishers that they will not lose touch or control of their content should encourage publishers to put more content online, unlike DRM (digital rights management) protections that block usage completely or irritate consumers—and incite hackers—with technological barriers.

Barbara Quint was senior editor of Online Searcher, co-editor of The Information Advisor’s Guide to Internet Research, and a columnist for Information Today.

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