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.