Frequently Asked Questions about ACAP

The Questions:

The Answers:

1) What is ACAP (Automated Content Access Protocol)?

Essentially, ACAP is all about managing copyright. 

It is a non-proprietary protocol, developed by publishers, which is designed to ensure that anyone who publishes content on the web and who wants to ensure that the web “crawlers” used by search engines and other online aggregators can read and understand the terms and conditions of access and re-use. In other words, ACAP is all about making copyright work on the web. 

To date, the terms and conditions used on web site have been legal documents buried deeply somewhere on the website. Nobody reads them – and the machines that crawl a site certainly can’t read them so they are of very limited value! 

ACAP terms and conditions are machine-readable. The content owner decides on the terms and conditions and uses ACAP as the communications protocol to express them in machine-readable language.

ACAP is intended to put content owners back in control of their online content in a way that is conducive to developing new online business models, putting new, high-quality content on the net and to maximizing the benefits of the relationship with search engines and other aggregators.

Devised by publishers in collaboration with search engines after an intensive year-long pilot in 2006-2007, ACAP is set to revolutionise the creation, dissemination, use, and protection of copyright-protected content on the worldwide web.

ACAP is destined to become the universal permissions protocol on the Internet, an open, non-proprietary standard through which content owners can communicate permissions for access and use to online intermediaries.

In the first instance, ACAP provides a framework that will allow any publisher, large or small, to express access and use policies in a language that search engines' robot "spiders" can be taught to understand. ACAP’s scope is now being extended to other business relationships and other media types including music and the audiovisual sectors..

Thanks to the enabling, open nature of ACAP, content providers will now be able to make more content available to users through the search engines, and to continue to innovate and invest in the development of business models for network publishing. With ACAP, the online publishing environment will become as rich and diverse as the offline one.

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2) Who was the initial driving force behind ACAP?

The primary initial drivers of ACAP were the World Association of Newspapers (WAN), the European Publishers Council (EPC) and the International Publishers Association (IPA).

These three organisations have steered and financed the initial stages of the project. The project director was Mark Bide of Rightscom Limited, the Technical Manager, Francis Cave and the Marketing Manager, Heidi Lambert. The pilot project was highly successful thanks to the publisher partners who worked to put together the first use cases. These publishers were: 

Agence France-Presse
De Persgroep
Independent News & Media Plc
John Wiley & Sons
Macmillan / Holtzbrinck
Media 24
Reed Elsevier
Sanoma Corporation
British Library

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3) How important is ACAP to the publishing and search engine industry?

For the first time ever, the newspaper, magazine and book publishing and search engine industries have worked together on a joint standard. It is thanks to this collaboration that the necessary high-level resources, skills and knowledge have been available as well as the political will to see this project succeed.

ACAP will enable new uses of works, and increase in their visibility, without any compromise to publishers’ commercial freedoms. In general, though, publishers make their content available with the help of partners and third parties (distributors and retailers, for example) who are paid a fee or given a share of revenue in return for the services they provide. So there is no reason why, in the online world, they will not choose to do something similar as long as they can negotiate commercially acceptable terms that reflect the balance of value contributed by the publisher and the third party. Equally there is no reason why they shouldn't choose NOT to make their content available in this way if they choose not to do so. It is an important principle that the publishers' right to decide what happens to their material is properly respected.

However, to date, many aggregators have chosen to adopt a liberal interpretation of copyright - "it's OK until someone tells us it isn't" - which means there is an enormous amount of infringing material being hosted, sometimes by major companies. Leaving aside the question of whether or not this is reasonable, we have now found a better way for publishers of  all types and in all media to make permissions for their content known to aggregators in a way they can easily understand.

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4) Should publishers be allowed to control their content?

Copyright law exists all over the world and gives creators and publishers the right to decide about how the content that they have created and invested in should be legitimately exploited by others. The media industries, which exist only because of copyright, contribute massively to every developed economy in the physical world, and are vital to the economic future. The ability to express and share permissions for access and use in standardised ways forms one part of the necessary infrastructure to allow that to happen as effectively on the network as in the physical world.

As Dominic Young, former Group Director of Publishing Services at News International said: “Copyright has led not to a restriction of content, but an explosion of it, an unstoppable, constant sharing of ideas and tidal waves of choice for consumers. If the knowledge economy is the keystone of future growth, then copyright is the foundation.”

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5) Isn't this simply an attempt by publishers to "lock up" their content?

No – precisely the opposite is true.

Every publisher who implements ACAP will have the confidence to make content available to search engines much more widely than is currently the case.

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6) What about existing technology, robots.txt and why?

ACAP will work smoothly with the existing robots.txt protocol.

We recognise that robots.txt is a well established method for communication between content owners and crawler operators. However, robots.txt is not sophisticated enough for today's content and publishing models. Robots.txt, in its current form as implemented by most search engine operators, provides only a simple choice between allowing and disallowing access. These simple choices are inconsistently interpreted. 

Microsoft's Chief Counsel in IP Tom Rubin recently said that using robots.txt in its current form to express permissions in this day and age was like "putting a Fiat engine in a Ferrari." A number of proprietary extensions have been implemented by several of the major search engines, but not all search engines recognise all or even any of these extensions. ACAP provides a standard mechanism for expressing conditional access which is what is now required. ACAP used Robots.txt on the insistence of the search engines. An xml format is being used in other applications.

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7) Is ACAP restricted to text media?

No: ACAP is designed to be extensible to all types of content published online, including audio and video.

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8) Isn't this all about money?

No: but no one would deny that it is partly about money.

Publishers and indeed authors are not ashamed about making money out of publishing – that is their business. They make substantial investments in the creation and distribution of content, and believe that they should be able to make a fair return on those investments. Business models are changing, and publishers need a protocol to express permissions of access and use that is flexible and extensible as new business models arise. ACAP will be entirely agnostic with respect to business models, but will ensure that revenues can be distributed appropriately. ACAP presents a win win for the whole online publishing community with the promise of more high quality content and more innovation and investment in the online publishing sector. ACAP is for the large as well as the small and even the individuals. It will benefit all content providers whether they are working alone or through publishers.

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9) Is ACAP just about a relationship between publishers and the big search engines?

Absolutely not, though it was born originally out of publishers' desire to find a way of asserting their online copyright that didn't involve lengthy and expensive legal cases with search engines or any other partner in the supply chain. We are currently working on the next phase of the project where we are extending ACAP for other business models and media. Any ACAP member (see below) can submit a user case proposal based on their own specific business model. Whilst the original use cases have of course influednced the way that ACAP looks right now, ACAP will develop as more use cases are proposed.

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10) Aren't Google offering commercial deals to some publishers?

Yes: but Google is not the only search engine with which publishers have relationships – and search engines have to have relationships with a very large number of publishers.

Business relationships on the internet should not simply be about deals done between very large corporations. It will not be possible to manage the very large number of business relationships in the absence of much greater automation. ACAP aims to enable the majority of smaller publishers, smaller search engines and other innovative intermediaries to enter the growing market for online content with confidence.

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11) Are the search engines involved?

Major search engines were involved in the project pre-launch and search engine Exalead was a full participant in the pilot project.

Speaking at an industry event in 2008, Microsoft’s Chief Counsel of IP Strategy Tom Rubin asserted that editors must be able to maintain appropriate control of their own content and the experience of their readers, and not cede those to search engines or aggregators. Rubin also talked of the importance of quality of content and of the importance of making publishing work online to protect that quality.

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12) Can anyone join ACAP?

Any organization interested into rights expression for media content may join the maintainer of ACAP, the IPTC and its RightsML Working Group. More information about IPTC membership can be obtained from the How To Join page

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13) How do I implement ACAP?

It's quick and easy - and free- and will take an IT professional less than half an hour to action. Basic implementation will have no effect on the functionality of your site(s). Go to the Implement ACAP page  for step by step guidelines on how to get ACAP-enabled.

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14) Will ACAP implementation affect my website traffic?

No. Many publishers have implemented already and none of them reported any alarming affect on the website traffic.

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15) Who "owns" ACAP after it is implemented and who is responsible for maintenance and upgrades and making sure it works successfully?

ACAP is a non-proprietary language for communicating your access and use policies which has been developed thanks to the resources of the publishing industry.

In terms of maintenance, it was decided in 2011 that all future maintenance will be done by the International Press Telecommunications Council (IPTC) as this organisation is the standardisation body of the new industry. The result of that decision is that ACAP will continue to be managed and maintained.

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16) What is the difference between ACAP and Creative Commons?

There are some real similarities between ACAP and Creative Commons, and some differences.

The main similarity is that both of us are involved in the business of expressing rights holder policies with respect to their content, not enforcing those policies. So, a rights holder publishing under a Creative Commons licence is saying to a user: “I am happy to give you permission to use my content in these ways, but not in these other ways, subject to the following conditions”; and an ACAP expression of policies with respect to search engine access and use (which is where ACAP’s v1.0 is focused) is saying something similar to a search engine operator about the content to which is applies. The uses that a search engine makes of content are different from those made by an individual, but the principle is the same.

There are some differences, however. CC is primarily aimed at giving permission to end users, while ACAP is focused primarily on business-to-business relationships. The simple CC iconographic representation of permissions is backed up by a legal licence; ACAP rather depends on the fundamental right of the copyright owner to determine what use(s) can be made of their content, and on a well-ordered market place of relationships between businesses. CC is intended to be read and understood by people, ACAP by machines. ACAP is unashamedly about commercial content exploitation; CC is more about non-commercial uses.

So, ACAP and Creative Commons exist to tackle rather different sets of requirements. There has, however, been productive and useful dialogue between ACAP and Creative Commons which may yet develop further, since we clearly have some items of common agenda.

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17) Examples of what you can currently express with ACAP'

  • allow indexing but specify time limit for storing of content
  • allow delivery of content to end users but prohibit changes to form or specify maximum length of snippets
  • allow usage for some purposes but not others
  • prohibit certain crawlers, allow others
  • indicate when permissions data is embedded in a photograph using the PLUS Coalition''s Licence Definition format
  • indicate when permissions for extended usages may be available, with reference to external resources
  • express constraints upon the presentation of content to end-users based upon their location (country, domain name, IP address range)

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18) How do ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 relate to the terms of typical licence terms?

ACAP versions 1.0 and 1.1 are designed to enable the communication of permissions and prohibitions for access and use of online content by "web crawlers" operated by search engines and other aggregators of online content.

ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 are deliberately limited to communicating permissions and prohibitions for content use by aggregators. The vocabulary is therefore limited to usages that are typically involved in operating and delivering aggregation services such as are provided by a search engine or a web archive. The usages recognised in ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 are those represented by the terms “crawl”, “index”, “preserve”, “present”, “follow” and “other”. The meanings of these terms are defined in the ACAP Dictionary.

Permissions and prohibitions can be applied to all web crawlers (and the aggregation services that lie behind those crawlers), or to specific, named crawlers (representing specific aggregators or aggregation services). Thus, to give a simple example, crawler A can be permitted to index a website, while crawler B can be prohibited.

Permissions and prohibitions can be applied to all online content on a specific website or specified sets of content. Thus crawlers may be permitted to crawl and index content in a “public” area, but prohibited from crawling and indexing content in a “private” area, even if the “private” area is accessible.

Permissions and prohibitions can be linked to the purpose for which crawling is taking place. Thus an aggregator who uses a single crawler to aggregate content for a variety of different purposes – e.g. different services – can be told that usages are permitted for certain purposes but not for others. This concept of the purpose of a usage is fundamental to traditional copyright law and to licensing, but was entirely absent from the protocols used for communicating with web crawlers prior to ACAP.

Permissions can be qualified in a variety of ways, depending upon the usage. As an example, an aggregator may be permitted to index and preserve (store) content, but only for a limited period of time. As another example, an aggregator may be permitted to present (deliver) content to an end-user, but the precise form in which it is presented can be constrained to prohibit changes in content or form, and to control the way that content is summarised in “snippets”. The concept of qualified permissions is largely absent from traditional methods of communication with web crawlers.

ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 do not enable communication of any terms or conditions other than permitted and prohibited usages, as these cannot currently be processed by web crawlers. It is anticipated that future versions of ACAP will address this limitation.

ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 do not enable communication of any terms or conditions to end users, as the sole focus of ACAP Versions 1.0 and 1.1 was communication of permissions and prohibitions to aggregators. It is anticipated that future versions of ACAP will address the communication of end user terms and conditions.

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19) What does the ACAP protocol "look" like?

The following shows ACAP implementation on a website's robots.txt file:

##ACAP version=1.1
Disallow: /skinimages/
Disallow: /scripts/
Disallow: /private/
Disallow: /bin/
Disallow: /App_*/

ACAP-crawler: *
#   User-agent: *
ACAP-allow-crawl: /
#   Allow: /
ACAP-crawler: *
#   User-agent: *
ACAP-disallow-crawl:  /skinimages/
#   Disallow:  /skinimages/
ACAP-disallow-crawl:  /scripts/
#   Disallow:  /scripts/
ACAP-disallow-crawl:  /private/
#   Disallow:  /private/
ACAP-disallow-crawl:  /bin/
#   Disallow:  /bin/

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20) How does ACAP Version 1.1 differ from 1.0?

ACAP Version 1.1 represents a small but significant upgrade of ACAP Version 1.0, clarifying existing features and including a small number of new features. The aim of the upgrade has been to make it even easier for publishers, search engine operators and other aggregators to implement

The most significant change is in providing explicit rules for how aggregators should interpret some of the more complex forms of expression in ACAP. It has now been made clear that, where an aggregator is unable (for whatever reason) to interpret a complex permission expression as the publisher clearly intended, the alternative is to interpret the expression as a prohibition, thereby avoiding the risk of using the publisher’s content in ways that the publisher had not intended should be permitted.

New features include a number of extensions to the ACAP vocabulary:

  • It is now possible to indicate when permissions data is embedded in a photograph using the PLUS Coalition’s License Definition Format.
  • It is now possible to indicate when permissions for extended usages may be available, with reference to external resources.
  • It is now possible to express constraints upon the presentation of content to end-users based upon their location (country, domain name, IP address range).
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