• Major publishers are calling AI-trained chatbots an existential threat to their business.
  • Publishers want Google and Microsoft to pay them for the use of media content to train their AI.
  • Media companies are also studying how to change their business models to protect themselves from the bots’ threat. 

Google’s and Microsoft’s chatbots have opened up a new battle in the search wars — and media companies are increasingly anxious that they might be collateral damage.

These chatbots draw on publishers’ and other content to deliver conversational answers to searchers’ questions, leaving news outlets and other media organizations scrambling to figure out if and how their content is being used and how they can be compensated for it.

It’s a moment some publishers consider the most disruptive change they’ve seen to their industry since the dawn of the internet — and the threat is no less than existential. The worry is that if people can get thorough answers to their questions through these bots, they won’t need to visit content sites anymore, undermining media’s entire revenue model, which has already been battered by digital upheaval.

“AI is a new frontier with great opportunity, but it can’t replace the trust, independence, and integrity of quality journalism,” said Danielle Coffey, EVP and general counsel of the News/Media Alliance, a publisher trade organization whose members include The New York Times and Wall Street Journal publisher News Corp. “Without compensation, we lose the humanity that journalists bring to telling a story.”

Within media companies, the topic is being discussed at the highest levels, from the C-suite to the boardroom. Executives are also strategizing with peers and competitors about the possibility of forging a united position against the tech companies, according to multiple publishing sources.

Along with the News/Media Alliance, trade organizations like Digital Content Next are also following the issue closely. They’re assessing the implications of chatbots using members’ content and trying to determine what actions members can take.

Publishers want tech companies to pay up

Two publisher sources told Insider they think litigation is likely if not inevitable. The industry is following cases like Getty Images’ lawsuit against AI company Stability AI for alleged copyright violation; and Thayer vs. Perlmutter, where the US Copyright Office said works have to be made by humans to be copyright-protected.

Media companies could make the case that bots scraping their content violates their terms of service. Publishers would say it’s derived entirely from their information, and that if the bots destroy their business, the AI won’t have any high-quality news left to learn from. 

Media outlets will face a bit of an uphill battle, however, because of the fair use doctrine that permits copyrighted material to be used in certain circumstances. Tech companies could argue they’re creating wholly new content via the bots. 

Media can also seek a legislative solution, but that strategy could take years.

Sources widely agreed that the preferred outcome for publishers is to get licensing agreements with the tech companies to use their content — a process that’ll start soon if it’s not already underway. There’s precedent; publishers have long licensed their content, and in the AI realm, Shutterstock recently announced it would compensate artists whose work has helped train AI.

“The decreasing revenue, increasing subscription model, role of third-party content aggregators — this is kind of death by a thousand cuts,” said Myriah Jaworski, who represents media and tech clients at the law firm Clark Hill. “There needs to be some revenue sharing. I have to believe we’ll get to that point.”

Publishers are even having conversations about going so far as to pull their content off search so it can’t be used to train AI. “Should we be giving our content to these models so they can learn to put us out of business?” asked one publishing insider.

‘AI leaders should be racing to license high-quality news’

Publishers aren’t alone in raising concerns about AI’s use of their content. Other types of companies and creators also have alleged misuse of their content by AI generators like Stability AI. 

“False and misleading information will undermine the promise of AI, so AI leaders should be racing to license high-quality news to train AI tools and deliver results through those tools. For those who loot rather than license, we are actively considering our options, and won’t hesitate to take action to ensure our rights are respected,” said Jason Conti, EVP and General Counsel, Chief Compliance Officer of Dow Jones.

It’s complicated, though. Publishers are still figuring out what content is being used by the AI and to what end. With all the bots out there, publishers also face a Whac-A-Mole situation. In the case of Microsoft’s Bing chatbot, publishers have to decide whether to go after Microsoft or OpenAI, which supplies the underlying tech.

Microsoft told Wired the AI-trained version of its Bing search engine has access to paywalled content from publishers that have agreements with Microsoft’s news service. Sample results from the new Bing chatbot, which is still in beta, display links to publisher sites, offering the hope that at least the bot will drive traffic publishers’ way.

But it’s unclear if links will be part of the final product, and how much traffic they actually drive. And some publishers doubt any value they get from such traffic would come close to the value chatbots could be getting from publishers’ content.

Bing’s chatbot is based on OpenAI’s ChatGPT tech, which analyzes a vast array of text on the web, including articles. It’s not known if ChatGPT paid to license that content, according to Wired’s article. Insider and others have reported on ChatGPT plagiarizing humans’ work

A Microsoft spokesperson shared a statement with Insider saying: “Bing collects and ingests publicly available information on the world wide web, consistent with copyright and IP laws to help users find information. New features in Bing will continue to align with these practices, including the use of blue links and references to assist users to navigate to websites. As part of this preview phase, we are continuing to work with partners to determine what additional controls may be helpful and we’ll have more to share over time.” 

As for Google, it has said its forthcoming conversational AI service, Bard, draws on information from the web. Sample search results it shared in its announcement of Bard didn’t include any linkouts.

Fool me once …

If the rise of AI-trained chatbots is seen as the biggest threat to publishers in recent years, they’re also clear-eyed about not repeating their mistakes of the past when they adapted their business models to chase search and social traffic, only to become victim to the tech companies’ changing strategies.

Media companies, including Insider parent Axel Springer, are actively looking at how to protect themselves against the impact AI will have on the content they make, like focusing more on investigations and news analysis that can’t be easily replicated by a robot. They’re also studying how to distribute their content if chatbots eliminate search as a distribution vehicle, by leaning more on newsletters, push alerts and the like.

Meanwhile, they’re exploring using the tech to their own benefit; media companies like BuzzFeed and Sports Illustrated parent Arena Group have used AI to generate some articles.

The AI chatbot battle is just the latest in the ongoing struggle by publishers to seek compensation from tech companies for displaying excerpts of their content in search results.

Beyond traffic links, there’s precedent for tech companies paying publishers for content. For a few years, Facebook paid publishers to display their content in a News tab. In 2021, Facebook reached an agreement with French publishers to pay them for articles shared on the platform by users.

The same year, an Australia law forced tech companies to pay news outlets for linking to their articles. It was met with stiff resistance from Facebook parent Meta, which temporarily pulled news from its social feed in the country rather than complying. Facebook and Google subsequently reached deals to pay outlets in that country.

In the US, the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would allow news outlets to collectively bargain with tech giants that distribute their content, was introduced in 2022 and is pending in Congress.

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