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News aggregation: Theft or free speech?

The other day, Syracuse University journalism professor Mark Obbie saw a blurb from a popular blogging Web site that credited its content simply to [MH].

It was a link buried at the end of the article, making it unclear that the news item had actually come from the Miami Herald, Obbie explained in an e-mail interview. A professor in the magazine department of Syracuse’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications, Obbie is also a former media law professor and past executive editor of The American Lawyer. “That’s not fair,” he continued. “And too often I hear bloggers and other aggregators brag about ‘reporting’ on particular stories when all they did was sit at a computer in their bathrobe and read the results of a real reporter’s hard work.”

It is a war that has been waged since the Web became commonplace, he said. As the battle for balance rages on, news aggregators and proponents of fair use and copyright law amendments are throwing their hats in the ring.

In the latest effort to protect its own work, the Associated Press announced that it will be implementing a tracking device on its editorial content.

News aggregation: Theft or free speech?

News aggregation: Theft or free speech?

Meanwhile, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira came to blows last week with Gawker, a celebrity and media gossip Web site, over portions of content the site lifted from an article he had written. He responded in a Washington Post editorial titled “The Death of Journalism (Gawker Edition),” and a Web chat hosted by the paper, where he ranted about the unfair usage of his work. After all, Shapiro reported, the blogger from Gawker admitted it had only taken him about 30 minutes to write his piece, while the unhappy Post reporter had spent days putting the original work together.
Given the nature of the Web, aggregation is an inevitable evolution. “It’s called free speech, and we should be glad that the Web promotes a conversation about the news,” said Obbie. “It can be good for journalism if the aggregators attribute and link to their sources, and don’t lift so much from the original that there’s no point in reading the original. The line between right and wrong gets crossed when your summary discourages rather than promotes interest in the original work.”

Brothers David and Dan Marburger couldn’t agree more, but they would like to go a bit further by actually amending the copyright law. In a 68-page proposal titled “Reviving the Economic Viability of Newspapers and other Originators of Daily Content,” they defined two types of aggregators: those that are “pure” and those that are “parasitic.” David Marburger, a first amendment lawyer from the Cleveland-based law firm Baker Hostetler, and Dan Marburger, an economics professor at Arkansas State University, believe the amendment would save newspapers from being the victims of “free riding” and “parasitic” aggregators.

According to their definition, pure aggregators provide a headline and link to the original report and Web site. Parasitic aggregators on the other hand, have rewritten the story enough to direct the reader away from going to the original piece of work. The amendment to the copyright law would require parasitic aggregators to link to the Web site, give back advertising revenue associated with the original content that was aggregated, or pay for the use of content.

But is it really a copyright issue? New York Times senior vice president and general council Ken Richieri said no in a recent podcast chat with copyright lawyer and UCLA professor Doug Lichtman. The transcript was posted in an article by Zachary Seward from the Nieman Journalism Lab. In an excerpt, Richieri said: “I mean, I think the big issues online and the pressure publishers are feeling is that publishers online are having a hard time replicating the economics that they saw offline. And many of them are looking at that through the lens of copyright, and I think where I would just draw a distinction is I am not so sure that copyright is really the culprit in a lot of this, and I don’t know – that that’s an imperfect lens and an imperfect remedy.”

Copyright is definitely important in defining the difference between freedom of speech and plagiarism, said Obbie. But laws of this nature cannot provide a solution in every situation and the World Wide Web is “still learning to crawl, much less walk, we as an industry ought to let business and creative entrepreneurs duke it out with ideas rather than laws, and trust that the marketplace will eventually find ways to reward originality and hard work,” he said. “We’re living through a revolution in communications. That’s more exciting and wonderful than awful, though it has some of each.”

–Katrina M. Randall

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