news:rewired: Time to start sticking up for what is ours?

*This is my final post prompted by attending news:rewired, which was run by Journalism.co.uk

Drawing parallels between print practice and online practice isn’t always a good idea, but I think it works in this case.

For as long as newspapers have been around, there’s been a degree of copying. Each journalist has their own threshold on what’s acceptable – probably based on the amount they’d copy if they had to.

But it’s a safe bet that if an article was lifted wholesale, with perhaps only the most minor of tweaks, the newspaper involved would fire a warning shot at those doing the lifting.

So what if content was lifted, not attributed, and passed off as original content in another newspaper or publication, day in and day out?

Because that’s what happens online, as any website producing original content about a football team will tell you. In one newsroom I sometimes work in, they can guess down to around five minutes when a football website will start running the same content just posted by that newspaper – often word for word, and rarely with a link back.

I bring this up now because it was an issue I didn’t expect to raise its head at news:rewired as there tends to be a distinct lack of sympathy at such events towards the lifting of journalistic material. But in the afternoon panel discussion, James Fryer, deputy editor of  SoGlos raised it as a big issue – and one SoGlos had tackled head on.

SoGlos is an arts and entertainments website which prides itself of originating all content itself. With 67,000 unique users a month and a weekly email subscriber base of 13,000, it’s found a successful model building advertising around the pull of unique content.

Perhaps not surprisingly, that’s led to the cut-and-paste brigade taking content from his site, and one of his key pieces of advice was for people “not to be afraid to stand up for what is yours.” Admittedly, it takes hard work to prove your point, but there’s potentially money at the end of each battle – plus the knowledge that the person caught pilfering is unlikely to return again.

That’s where Caroline Kean, partner and head of litigation at media law firm Wiggin, picked up. She’s helped SoGlos deal with such theft – which Fryer pointed out had been committed by media operations of all sizes.

The points Kean made are summed up here:

  • It’s a myth that if it’s on the net it must be free – the internet is just another platform for distribution
  • The notion that you can lift up to 40 words is also a myth
  • You have to prove that a substantial part of your article/work has been lifted to pursue it – sadly the law has never set out what a substantial part actually is
  • There are exceptions around so-called “fair dealings” – for example you could republish a piece of art if you are carrying a critique of it.
  • However, taking from a competitor is not “fair dealing”

Kean also looked at how to work out what the ‘loss’ was from material lifted and suggested working it out against projected lost revenue – a difficult area to work out, but as good a start as any.

And it’s perhaps worth remembering that it’s only when we actually start fighting against the cut-and-paste brigade that this sort of behaviour will stop.

That applies as much to the hyperlocal operators as it does the big media operations. If a hyperlocal operator sees his or her content in a local newspaper without crediting or prior arrangement, there’s no point just tutting about it on Twitter – make the point directly to the paper involved. I’ve know of cases where this has happened – and because the hyperlocal site in question complained, it didn’t happen again.

For big media operators, a letter from the company lawyer is a good way to get people to stop – and is a tool which should be deployed more frequently.

There was a lot of optimism at news:rewired around the notion that quality content will eventually drive revenue. But that will only work for as long as it’s relatively unique.

Take football rumours. Websites up and down the country run rumours about Liverpool Football Club but how many actually invest any time in writing these stories? Some websites even run the disclaimer “we’re not saying these are true, but here they are anyway.”

I’m confident there will come a point where users get sick of seeing the same material served up by sites looking for quick hits on the cheap. But to make sure that when that time comes, it’s those investing time, money and effort in unique content who benefit, work needs to be done now to protect the work we’re already doing.

3 comments

  1. Sums it up nicely and I couldn’t agree more with the belief that you should stand up for what is yours. Similarly, as you say there has always been an element of borrowing which I can’t ever see going away.

    Be interested to know your thoughts though on publishing a reworked version of an article, yet attributing (with link) to the original source of quotes etc? It’s something I’ve done from time to time (when it’s been an event we couldn’t possibly have covered). I’m sure I’d reworked a piece enough not to need to, but I think a good rule of thumb is ‘would it be acceptable to me if it were my piece being followed?’.

    I’m just glad I don’t have to deal with football websites anymore – you’re always the enemy to them until there’s a piece of your work they want to publish wholesale!

    1. Reworking stories is a bit different, I think, as long as you’re making clear where you originally got the information from – like in the example you’ve given. That way, it’s clear to everyone where it has originated. Does that make sense?

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