Plagiarism or Fair Use: Who’s to Judge?

Call it fair use or call it plagiarism, but I’m going to “borrow” excerpts from a top-10 list that mocks a journalistic sin committed by “The Hartford Courant.” Connecticut’s largest daily newspaper, which has a legacy of doing first-rate journalism, found itself caught up in a plagiarism scandal.

So why did the Courant reuse local news reports from rival newspapers? According to the parody, because it:

    [Was] testing journalistic security for an investigative piece on how easy it is to steal stories.

    Found stories in discarded copies of other newspapers; thought they didn’t need them any more.

So goes a post on the Hartford Courant Alumni Association and Refugee Camp, a blog administered by Paul E. Stern, a former Courant employee. (He gave me permission to republish these excuses. As for attribution, he says they were supplied anonymously to the site by “one of its more clever readers.”)

Though this post was written tongue-in-cheek, plagiarism is no joking matter in an industry that’s in tumult due to ad revenues shifting from offline to online channels and to a sagging economy.

If It’s Good Enough for Google…

This summer, the “Courant” brought renewed attention to the practice of news aggregation, which typically involves posting headlines, links, and short summaries taken from articles on other sites.

Some proponents of aggregation consider it a form of flattery, sending visitors and link love to other sites. While doing so, the aggregator provides a service, surfacing relevant news and information that may be of interest to its readers.

Critics, however, contend that aggregators avoid the cost of paying workers to produce news articles and other content. Plus, there’s a potential loss of ad or subscription revenue.

By its own admission, the “Courant” took aggregation a few steps too far. Online, the “Courant” summarized local news articles — the bread and butter of community newspapers (e.g., “Hazardville Water Co. Requests 19.05% Rate Hike“). While it typically attributed the information to original sources, it sometimes omitted a link to article’s rightful owner. In addition, it took some of those articles and published them in print, sometimes omitting attribution altogether. That’s a big no-no.

Chris Powell, managing editor of the “Journal Inquirer,” a feisty tabloid in Manchester, CT, complained to the “Courant” about its “aggregation” approach. While he’s OK if another Connecticut newspaper aggregates headlines and news summaries for national and worldwide news, he doesn’t appreciate seeing the fruits of his staff’s labor show up online or in print in the “Courant” — even with the proper attribution.

Are there any circumstances when Powell thinks it’s OK for a competitor to grab a headline and summary even with proper attribution?

“If the [‘Journal Inquirer’] reports that a Martian has landed in East Windsor [CT] and we have an exclusive and the ‘Courant’ cannot contact the space ship, the ‘Courant’ might want to pick up that story,” he said in a phone interview.

Keep in mind that ever since Google News launched in 2002 to aggregate news headlines, some publishers and other content creators, such as the Associated Press (AP), have looked askew at the service. MediaShift’s Jeffrey D. Neuburger notes in an article that three years ago Google paid the AP an undisclosed licensing fee to include its content in Google News results.

And just this week Google Labs disclosed it’s working on a product called Fast Flip. People using Fast Flip can “flip” through or browse full-page versions of articles. But rather than fight Google, some publishers are testing the service and sharing revenue earned from contextually relevant ads. Those publishers, according to a Google blog post, include “The New York Times,” “The Atlantic,” and “Newsweek.”

Can Technology Save the Day?

Startup Attributor estimates that U.S. newspapers, magazines, and book publishers lose $250 million in annual ad revenue due to the unauthorized use of content. That’s based on a $0.25 CPM (define). (Note: premium network aggregator Adify reported its median CPM was $7.71 during Q2 2009.)

To get a piece of that action, some online publishers have teamed up with Attributor to create the Fair Syndication Consortium. Through a service called FairShare, publishers provide a feed of their content and Attributor tracks full copies of that material. When the service identifies articles that have been misused, FairShare contacts an ad network where the article appeared and requests that a portion of ad revenue be sent to the original creator. Attributor will collect a fee for acting as a virtual bounty hunter.

Some 1,500 publishers and content creators have signed up for the ad revenue-sharing service and AdBrite, an ad network, has agreed to cooperate, according to Rich Pearson, Attributor’s VP of marketing. The revenue-sharing program has not yet kicked in; the service is looking to get other ad networks to participate.

For every original article on the Web, Pearson said Attributor turns up 12 to 15 copies of the original content. “We do find unauthorized reuse on splogs and other ‘Made for AdSense’ sites, but there is a surprising amount on what appear to be legitimate midsized sites,” Pearson said in a follow-up e-mail interview.

In addition to helping content creators recoup ad revenue, he suggests that the service can help those midsized Web sites that wouldn’t mind sharing ad revenue but don’t have resources to hammer out syndication and licensing agreements.

While technology promises to help capture lost ad revenue, it still won’t beat the big stick approach taken by old-fashioned newsmen like Powell.

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