“We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under misguided legal theories,” said publisher William Singleton, chairman of the Associated Press, at the recent annual meeting of the Newspaper Association of America in San Diego. “We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more.”

It was a call to arms. Said Singleton, “We believe all of your newspapers will join our battle to protect our content and receive appropriate compensation for it. AP and its member newspapers and broadcast associate members are the source of most of the news content being created in the world today. We must be paid fully and fairly.

The AP board approved what the AP called an “industry initiative” to protect original news content. The AP says it will come up with a “system to track content distributed online to determine if it is being legally used.” It’ll develop new “search pages” pointing Web surfers to the “latest and most authoritative sources of breaking news.”

Later, AP president Tom Curley told Charlie Rose the AP wants to create a “content registry” to protect content as it passes through the Internet. “Put a beacon on it, watch where it goes, and police it better than we have.”

Google wasn’t singled out at the AP meeting. It pays the AP millions of dollars for access to AP content, something Curley acknowledged to Rose. “Google is a licensed user of AP,” said Curley. “But it’s what happens to [AP content] in the Web that goes beyond that license — that we need to pull back.”

But in an interview with the Australian, Robert Thomson, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, got a lot more specific. “The whole Google sensibility is inimical to traditional brand loyalty,” Thomson said. “Google encourages promiscuity — and shamelessly so — and therefore a significant proportion of their users don’t necessarily associate that content with the creator.” 

Thomson also talked like a man strapping on armor. “There is a collective consciousness among content creators that they are bearing the costs and that others are reaping some of the revenues — inevitably that profound contradiction will be a catalyst for action and the moment is nigh,” he said. “There is no doubt that certain Web sites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the Internet.”

Regardless of AP licensing agreements, if newspaper publishers don’t like their news content wandering freely on the Internet, Google is part of the problem — something media analyst Staci Kramer points out at paidcontent.org. Which meant that the speech by Google’s CEO, Eric Schmidt, to close the meeting in San Diego promised to be confrontational and dramatic. Alas, the New York Times compared it to “a soggy newspaper hitting a doorstep.” The Times reported that newspaper publishers don’t like it that Google, “which recently began showing ads on Google News, is profiting from their content.” But — and it’s a big but — they “do not want to cut off the traffic they get from Google’s search and news services and from other search engines.”

So is the noisy loin-girding by publishers a prelude to battle, or is it frustrated blather?

Charlie Rose had the Huffington Post’s Arianna Huffington on with Tom Curley. Curley conceded times have changed, it’s a new world, and all that, but he argued that it hasn’t changed that much. There are things serious news organizations do that must continue to be done, he said. “Tough questions” must be put to governments, lawyers must be paid to help file FOI requests, reporters must be sent to Iraq and Afghanistan and security arrangements must be made to protect them there. “The question I ask is, who’s going to pay,” said Curley. “That’s what this is about. Not putting up toll booths…. This is about a new world where, yes, we’re willing to link, we’re willing to have the content go in different directions — if there’s a compensation model attached to it….This is about a fair deal, and it’s time that it came back to the people who are doing the work.”

He talked about the AP setting out different “buckets” on the Web. There’d be just headlines in one, just lede paragraphs in another, the full texts of complicated stories in a third. Maybe the first and second buckets would be available to all comers  — but the third one they’d have to pay for.

Huffington agreed with Curley that times are tough. She said newspapers have been hit by a “perfect storm” of revolutionary technologies and deep recession. “All I’m arguing for is not to pretend consumers habits have not changed,” she said. “Of course you need to monetize your content. But how do you do it…? Any model that tries to create walls is not going to work.” She said. “All I’m arguing for is to be very careful not to pretend that consumers habits have not changed, and not to be looking to get consumers to be going to a particular source of news. Because they are not going to do that.”