Helping to do right with rights

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Mark Bide, project director of ACAP, explains how publishers can make their rights and those of their authors clear to search engines and why he believes such efforts are required

Why have over 800 publishers – including the Times Online, the Wall Street Journal, The Independent, Penguin, and many other household names in 43 different countries – implemented a standard known as the Automated Content Access Protocol (ACAP) on their websites? The answer is simple – they have recognised that the time has come to send out a very clear signal about the need to maintain the rule of law.

The internet has grown up – as have other frontiers in the past – as an essentially lawless place, and many things that we take for granted in the physical world about the way that society works have simply been ignored. One of these is copyright – and publishers and other copyright owners are now taking a stand, particularly against those businesses on the internet that make their money by exploiting other people’s property – their copyrights – without explicit permission.

The internet has made the copying of content simple and inexpensive and has given rise to a breed of highly effective intermediaries that can process and monetise unimaginable quantities of whatever content they can find. Search engines and other content aggregators have enjoyed an extended period of doing business on the frontier, essentially without rules.

Such aggregators seek to define the way the internet works in the image of their preferred online utopia – where in the end they control access to all information and dominate the resulting market place. They ask publishers to keep creating and publishing content but at the same time to accept that the normal rules of copyright have had to be suspended because ‘that is not the way in which the internet works’ and ‘information on the internet wants to be free’.

Healthy respect for copyright

The extraordinary dominance that one aggregator in particular, Google, has achieved generates both admiration and no little fear. The development of a healthy online content ecosystem depends on some moderation of the dominance that Google has established. That moderation can come from the re-establishment of an old-fashioned respect for copyright – where copyright holders can make the choice about how their content is reused by others. This will in turn provide the basis for a healthier and more diverse online market for content and rights.

It was against this background that publishers came together to develop ACAP – Automated Content Access Protocol – an approach to managing copyright that goes with the flow of the internet. This is not ‘digital rights management’ but a communication tool.

ACAP provides a machine-interpretable language that allows any type of publisher – from the largest to the smallest – to communicate the permissions it wishes to apply to its content. The automated and semi-automated tools that the aggregators use to copy and store other people’s content can learn to read and interpret these permissions without human intervention. It is an internet-scale solution to an internetscale problem.

Government interest

To some extent at least, ACAP is pushing at an open door. Governments are very concerned about the future of their creative industries. This is unsurprising in view of their significance to GDP. Both the European Commission and the UK Government have taken particular note of ACAP. It was cited as a potential solution to online copyright issues in various policy documents in the Commission’s Communication on Creative Content Online 2008. It was also noted in January and March this year in the UK Government’s Digital Britain Report and in a report by the Strategic Advisory Board for IP Policy (SABIP).

Despite the government backing, search engines are still resistant to implementation – and it isn’t hard to see why this might be. The idea that copyright owners might seek to enforce their rights is clearly a challenge to current business models.

However, the direction of the tide is clearly changing. This is well illustrated by the settlement that Google has had to make with book publishers and authors in the USA. While Google has not publicly accepted that it was doing anything illegal, it has put a substantial amount of money into a class-action settlement, which will subsequently allow rights holders to maintain control over their in-copyright books. Although this is not the place for an extended discussion of the settlement, the issue is clear: copyright matters, and will continue to matter.

Scholarly sector support

The majority of implementers to date have been newspaper publishers. But there is also a small but important representation of other parts of publishing, including the learned and scholarly sector. Such implementers include Portland Press in the USA and the Royal Society of Chemistry in the UK.

ACAP is not limited to attempting to resolve a short-term spat between newspaper publishers and Google. Its purpose is to provide an essential part of the toolkit required to maintain copyright on the network, enabling new business models and channels of distribution. ACAP is entirely agnostic about business models, simply providing solutions to the particular problems which publishers seek to address. Having published v1.0 about 18 months ago, we are about to embark on developing v2.0 and this will allow much greater sophistication of management.

We are approaching a critical time in the defence of copyright. ACAP is seeking to contribute to the development of methods whereby copyright can be managed at the scale of the internet, without human intervention and without recourse to lawyers. We continue to encourage all publishers to implement ACAP on their websites – more information can be found at

What ACAP looks like

ACAP builds on many of the systems already in place with the conventional Robots Exclusion Protocol (REP) or tags. For example, the ACAP term ‘crawler: crawler-name’ to define the crawler that the commands refer to is equivalent to the REP expression ‘User-agent: crawlername’ and the existing HTML expression ‘’. However, ACAP defines many more features about how crawlers can use website content, While robots.txt simply has the terms ‘Allow:’ and ‘Disallow:’, ACAP includes terms such as;
‘disallow-present-thumbnail:’ and;
Such terms give much more detailed instructions about how individual bits of content can be used.

As Francis Cave, ACAP’s technical manager explains, ‘ACAP aims to standardise features that in REP are proprietary extensions, for example the ability to prohibit presentation of snippets and to specify time limits on indexing of content. It has many features not found at all in REP, such as the ability to prohibit presentation of thumbnails; specify the maximum length of a snippet; prohibit presentation of content in a different file format; and prohibit style changes to content.’

He added that another important feature of ACAP that is not in REP is the ability to specify a ‘usage purpose’ for which the specified usages are either permitted or prohibited. This makes it possible for the content owner to specify particular processes or services in which their content may or may not be used. An example might be to prohibit content being used in a news service or syndicated to third parties, or to permit content to be preserved in a long-term archive.