Wire Service Theft

Bernhard Warner brings an interesting perspective to the fight between the AP and the blogosphere over copyright law. In attempting to bolster the AP’s case, he actually weakens it considerably.

To understand where the AP is coming from with this caveman approach to copyright enforcement, you have to understand what it’s like to work for a news wire. When I joined Reuters in 2001, nobody prepared me for the level of theft I would witness daily. Newspapers regularly carved up my stories and those of my colleagues and claimed them as their own. Often they’d plug in a word at the bottom indicating it came from Reuters or they would include some vague reference to “wire reports.” But just as often they would not. And, I’m not talking about pipsqueak newspapers. I’m talking about the biggest news outlets in the world blithely copying and pasting my original reportage and making just a few cosmetic changes — typically, removing the “By Bernhard Warner” part and inserting their own name; another trick was keeping my name in and describing me as a “special correspondent” of the newspaper — and hoping I wouldn’t notice. I’m not naming names because the list is simply too long. It seemed to be every newspaper. Out of sheer frustration, my colleagues and I gave up trying to police the theft because we were always hit with the same incredulous response from a newspaper editor: “But you’re a news wire. I’m fairly certain we have a contract with you that says this is fair use.”

Warner, who now teaches journalism in addition to doing freelance work, also observes that, “If a student is caught lifting text from a website and claiming it as his own, that’s grounds for failure. End of story. And, if the crime is particularly grievous, it could lead to expulsion.”

You don’t have to search too deep into a blog to find examples of flagrant plagiarism. Again, I’m not talking about pipsqueak blogs. There is a generally accepted practice among bloggers to lift the majority of a story or even the entire text of an article from a news site and re-paste it on the blog. As long as there is a link to the original article, the thinking goes, it’s OK. It’s not. That’s not “fair use”. That’s theft. My students can tell the difference.

But, aside from scraper blogs, the norm in the political blogosphere is decidedly different from plagiarism or the practice Warner describes as the norm in journalism. Bloggers link to the sources that they quote and give credit. No blogger I read with any regularity expropriates copy from the AP or anywhere also and passes it off as their own work.

Back in my teaching days, I had a few occasions where students turned in papers that were one long quote. Sometimes, they would quote several paragraphs from one source and then a few more from another source or two — especially if I had given them minimum source guidelines. And, yes, they’d fail for doing that. But it’s not plagiarism if it’s sourced; it’s not scholarship, either.

No “non-pipsqueak” blog I can think of consists mostly of extensive quotations and links. A handful of link blogs, of which Glenn Reynolds‘ InstaPundit is the archetype, have more quotes and linkage than original commentary. But those sites typically have very short excerpts and they invariably link and thus send traffic to the original source. In Reynolds’ case, often massive amounts of traffic. (A point Warner acknowledges.)

Some blogs, including this one, frequently have extensive excerpts. But they’re generally set off in obvious block quotes, as is done in this post, and interspersed with significant amounts of original commentary. Admittedly, I have the occasional post with little or no added value, simply pointing to a news story, including an excerpt, and a one-sentence reaction. Usually, this is a breaking news type story that I think my readers, who spend less time than I do combing the news, would like to know about. But no significant blog comes to mind that does mostly that.

Warner and I are in agreement that we need to come to some consensus as to what constitutes “fair use” and do a better job of educating bloggers on the issue of copyright. But the culture of blogging, especially political blogging, has naturally evolved into something that does a much better job of that than is the norm in the mainstream press.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Media, , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Jim Henley says:

    The other thing that jumps out from Warner’s “supportive” article is that blogs are the least of AP’s problems. To the extent that anyone threatens their business model, it’s Establishment Media Enterprises (EME!) stealing their stuff, not bloggers.

  2. Bill Enator says:

    I think the AP’s assault on “fair use” fails not on the merit of the law but because of the AP’s stance that “It’s OK for the AP to do this… but you can’t!” flaunting of fair use.

    The AP routinely quotes and excerpts from others under ‘Fair Use” claims… However they are not willing to extend that same protection, or courtesy to others.

    Oh and don’t dare re-write, paraphrase… as that is Hot News infringement.

    Now on Friday the AP claims the issue resolved and retreats from the conversation.

  3. Bithead says:

    Some blogs, including this one, frequently have extensive excerpts. But they’re generally set off in obvious block quotes, as is done in this post, and interspersed with significant amounts of original commentary. Admittedly, I have the occasional post with little or no added value, simply pointing to a news story, including an excerpt, and a one-sentence reaction. Usually, this is a breaking news type story that I think my readers, who spend less time than I do combing the news, would like to know about. But no significant blog comes to mind that does mostly that.

    I would argue that in both the cases you cite,James, you’re driving traffic to their sites and therefore to the waiting arms of the ads running there. I fail to see how that constitutes “Damage”.

  4. James Joyner says:

    I would argue that in both the cases you cite,James, you’re driving traffic to their sites and therefore to the waiting arms of the ads running there. I fail to see how that constitutes “Damage”.

    It depends. If the excerpt leaves them wanting more, sure. But if you quote the whole thing, not so much.

    That’s true of bloggers as well. There are bloggers who’ll quote whole posts as part of a roundup with little to no analysis of their own. That doesn’t help drie traffic.

    The obvious extreme is the scraper blog, which automatically republishes entire posts with no commentary as the entirety of the site business model. They’re hurting the real blogs.

  5. Michael says:

    I would argue that in both the cases you cite,James, you’re driving traffic to their sites and therefore to the waiting arms of the ads running there. I fail to see how that constitutes “Damage”.

    It’s not the “Damage”, per se, it’s the fact that you’re making money that seems to bother them. They seem to think it’s a zero-sum game, that if you get ad revenue from their story, they are somehow missing out on that revenue, even if they get more generated traffic to their own ads than if you hadn’t linked to them in the first place.

    It’s like the whole net-neutrality debate, where the ISPs are upset that Google is showing you ads over the ISP’s network, without Google paying your ISP for the privilege. Nevermind the fact that the ISP gets more money letting you visit Google than they would if they didn’t, they’re seeing money change hands that they’re not getting a cut of, and they think they’re entitled to it.

  6. Bithead says:

    It’s not the “Damage”, per se, it’s the fact that you’re making money that seems to bother them.

    Michael; In a legal sense, a court would regard lost income as “damage”.

    They seem to think it’s a zero-sum game, that if you get ad revenue from their story, they are somehow missing out on that revenue, even if they get more generated traffic to their own ads than if you hadn’t linked to them in the first place.

    Well, the issue there should end up being proof on their part that they’d have made that income, AND that you wouldn’t have made that income, absent your excepting the story(ies) in question. Both a hard sell, to be sure.

    Unfortunately, copyright law, as it now stands, and as my limited legal understanding on the matter allows, seems to make the assumpton in favor of the copyright holder, regardless of their ability to prove these other factors.

    In this case, then, as so many other situations where law and government are concerned, common sense is given the boot.

  7. Michael says:

    Michael; In a legal sense, a court would regard lost income as “damage”.

    Yes, but the fact of the matter is that AP can’t prove that the income you receive results in a loss for them. Like I said before, it’s not a zero-sum game, which makes it much harder than standard copyright lawsuits.

    Well, the issue there should end up being proof on their part that they’d have made that income, AND that you wouldn’t have made that income, absent your excepting the story(ies) in question. Both a hard sell, to be sure.

    Especially hard to sell if you are providing a link back to their story, and only quoting a portion of it.

    Unfortunately, copyright law, as it now stands, and as my limited legal understanding on the matter allows, seems to make the assumpton in favor of the copyright holder, regardless of their ability to prove these other factors.

    Well the RIAA’s running rough-shod over copyright law lately may make it less friendly for the copyright holder these days.

  8. Bithead says:

    Especially hard to sell if you are providing a link back to their story, and only quoting a portion of it.

    That’s true… assuming of course that the defendant in such a case can afford to see the case through. And there’s the thing; Most of ’em can’t.

  9. Bithead says:

    That’s true of bloggers as well. There are bloggers who’ll quote whole posts as part of a roundup with little to no analysis of their own. That doesn’t help drive traffic.

    Well, not of itself, but it does drive traffic for the link it contains, since the more links to a particular site, the better the site is positioned in serach engines and whatnot. Memeorandum, for example is certainly link driven. Even the #%@#%^#&&! scraper sites.