Legal Archives / AP = Ass Pounders / The Associated Press

by Jerry Trowbridge

It is the defining photo of the Elian Gonzalez saga. A machine gun-wielding federal officer points his weapon at a six year old boy. The photo takes on a life of its own.

At Kinko's in Coral Gables, protesters duplicate the copyrighted photo late into the night, and laminate their copies so that they become placards. They are held up to television cameras outside the White House; outside the US Justice Department; in store windows from Hialeah to downtown Miami. Then, these images are again rebroadcast; republished. You cannot escape them.

The Associated Press, AP, an organization of news organizations, holds a copyright on the picture, taken by an AP photographer, but it has apparently made no attempt to assert its rights against the thousands of infringers in Miami's Cuban community.

"We can't get them all," says David Tomlin, assistant to the president of AP. Tomlin is fielding questions about his threats to webmasters that they may be criminally prosecuted for a satirical video that used that defining photo, and others, in a Monty Python-style sendup of the Budweiser "Whazzup" commercial.

It was Tomlin who wrote a threatening letter to sixsite.com, and another to newgrounds.com complaining that the video parody constituted "unauthorized defacing and display of AP pictures on your site there."

"We'll go for whatever it takes to get our material out of your hands. Please acknowledge immediately that you understand and are taking down the display of AP pictures at the address above," Tomlin wrote.

It was as if the AP was holding up a mirror to its own copyrighted picture. Machine-gun toting marshals versus a six year old boy; the largest newsgathering cooperative of the largest media outlets in the world, versus two little websites and a video parody.

Sixsite.com capitulated immediately, but it did something truly remarkable that can only happen in an Internet world. It replaced the parody video that used AP's picture, with AP's threatening letter. There were tens of thousands of hits per hour from websurfers looking for the video, when they found what appeared to be AP's suppression of it, many were angry, and they called Tomlin's telephone number to try and tell him so.

"The reaction to the letter has been breathtaking, the disruption has been great," said Tomlin, still at work at 6PM defending AP's action.

"If we don't defend our rights, we won't have them."

The Internet is text based, so it is relatively easy to fake an AP dispatch, so AP has been fielding a lot of complaints from people who read "AP material altered slightly or with changed headlines."

Some are spoofs, some are the work of people with axes to grind, but the complaints are all from people who were fooled, and usually aren't happy about it.

These "false dispatches" have troubled the AP for a long time, because text messages that can be broadcast to hundreds of thousands of people within seconds aren't a new thing for them.

What is new, is the fact that anybody in the country armed with an Internet connection and a website has the same ability to be heard within a few hours, from coast to coast as the AP has had for nearly a century.

Then, also as a part of the Elian Gonzalez debacle, the AP was accused of doctoring photographs. Much of the discussion took place on the Internet. It was also a popular talk radio topic.

So the Associated Press then discovered its copyrighted photographs on the Internet that were also doctored, and they lost it. These were "bizarre abuses of AP material and the AP name."

Things were much easier for most of the last century; the only people who had control of mass communications were either licensed by the government or were big businesses, like newspapers or motion picture studios. So if you had a product like a news service, you had a pretty limited list of potential clients, but real good control over usage.

The Internet gave us all a private national soap-box, but what is most damning to the Associated Press is the 1994 Supreme Court decision in Campbell v. Acuff-Rose.

We're graphically literate in the new millennium, and the manipulation of words and images is no longer the special province of a few; that means things that once could be trusted, are now suspect.


Posted February 28, 2000 by Jerry Trowbridge