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Samizdata, derived from Samizdat /n. - a system of clandestine publication of banned literature in the USSR [Russ.,= self-publishing house]

Copy where right is due…?

An interesting debate has been going on about one warblogger’s reporting in particular and about bloggers and source attribution in general. Apparently, Stratfor accused Sean-Paul, the Agonist warblogger providing minute by minute coverage, of plagiarising their news that are available by subscription only. There are various threads to this discussion. Here is the Agonist one, here Metafilter is asking some pertinent questions about blogs and copyright, and here is the latest from Strategic Armchair Command.

Most comments on the Agonist are adoringly supportive of Sean-Paul, encouraging him to carry on providing what they see as an invaluable service to them. Most comments on Strategic Armchair Command who positioned themselves against the Agonist are sufficiently abusive to make someone stop blogging. There are a few comments that break the rank and this one comes from a supporter who sees beyond the gung-ho attitute of some parts of blogosphere in taking on the mainstream media.

Actually, I am an attorney. There isn’t a problem if SP is just reprinting headlines that Stratfor provides on its site for free. But if he was republishing wire reports that Stratfor sells by subscription, that’s a serious problem and SP should have known better.

This all reminds me of littlegreenfootball’s assertion that his site broke a story of WMD suits found in Iraq, when all he did was link to the newspaper that actually did break the story. Bloggers are confusing what work belongs to someone else and what is their own.

And another reasonable sounding voice:

I can understand why alarms have been raised. *If* a lot of content is being posted from a subscription site without mentioning the source, some might be lead to believe the author of this site was trying to infer he had unique or personal sources that don’t exist.

In plain terms: anyone can scour sites and post links to the material he finds, but if that’s what you’re doing you should provide sources. Otherwise, when the curtain is pulled aside, folks may be disappointed to find the little man working the levers. If you do have your own unique sources, highlight those somehow, so no confusion can arise.

People post an awful lot of value-less material out on the net; this site has provided some interesting material though. Understand though, that when a site like this grows in popularity, it’s likely to be scrutinized by many who are well-equipped to discover any cracks in its integrity.

Perhaps there are better or more illustrative comments in the threads I link to above, but I have not had the time to go through the hundreds of comments on the Agonist alone. Some are quite surreal in attacking the very idea of copyright from angles that boggle the mind, invoking anything from Dark Ages to free ideas for all.

My view on the controversy is straightforward. For me, good blogging is one based on credibility. Audience is, for most part, discerning and it does not make for good practise to make yourself look bigger & better than you really are. If you can’t come up with new interesting ideas, there is nothing wrong with using someone else’s as long as it’s clear. In fairness, Sean-Paul posts were not meant to be creative, but to be on the ‘breaking edge’ of news.

Another essential feature of blogosphere is linkage. Not linking to sources is a cardinal sin for a blogger, in my opinion, and I am often annoyed by the pseudo-blogs that have started to emerge, namely the BBC Reporters’ Log or ComputerWorld blog that do not link and individual posts cannot be linked to.

Also, when something as controversial as the war in Iraq becomes the focus of the news, objective reporting and information are not the only factors at play. People’s allegiances, emotions and self-interest often outshout voices of reason and objectivity. And as the commenter in the first quote points out “cracks in integrity” become more apparent. On the other hand, I can understand the race to breaking news as I share the bloggers’ desire to become more influential vis-a-vis the maintream media.

We have a few simple rules here on Samizdata.net. A very lenient editor whose occassional editorial spankings are a gentle reminder that minarchy rather than anarchy is the game… Links to and/or attritbution of any quotes and text lifted from elsewhere and although we occassionaly nick a picture or two, we try not to make a habit of it. I would certainly consider it good practise to be careful about using paid subscribtion sources, let alone not crediting their material. And I would certainly not want to see a backlash against bloggers from the traditional media, especially if it is triggered by careless rather than bad practice.

I am sure this is not the first or last controversy about copyright and blogs and I will welcome any contributions to the debate.

12 comments to Copy where right is due…?

  • Dan

    I don’t think that Strategic Armchair Command is actually speaking for Stratfor…he just has a strong opinion.

  • T. Hartin

    As another attorney, I can tell you that the attorney quoted in the Samizdata post has it right, as a practical matter. Actually, material that is posted on a website with general access for free can also be copyrighted, so that reposting it is a violation of the copyright. It is very clear, though, that taking copyrighted information from a paid site and posting it for free is a violation of copyright and is, in effect theft.

    I don’t know what Sean-Paul has been doing, but the rules aren’t terribly difficult to comprehend.

  • I am beginning to wonder about the whole concept of copyright will survive the digital information age. Or, indeed, whether or not it should so survive.

    However, whilst it does survive it has to be taken into account. Material which is copyright cannot be reproduced without a licence (or permission) but there are provisions for ‘fair use’ which might prove to be far more generous in the case of non-commercial reproduction.

    There are no set standards here and, sadly, boundaries will remain vague until such time as they have been tested in a Court of Law (and who wants the dubious honour of being the test case?)

    In the meantime, I agree with Gabriel that everyone should exercise common sense and best practice. Only ‘cut and paste’ justifiable portions of web-based articles and always give credit for the source.

  • My rule on this is just give credit where its due. CP has done a fairly good job at attribution. There is no excuse for not giving the source. Its basic manners for one thing. Course this is nothing new, I have had my music reviews that were written for an online publication or small mag lifted and used by another reviewer in a “bigger” mag. Its not just an online thing…the big guy rip off little known writers all the time.

  • Jay Campbell

    From <http://agonist.org>Agonist.org today:

    1:22 EST I just had a great conversation from the people at Stratfor. I have used some material from their site recently that hasn’t been properly attributed. It will be shortly. In the meantime, might I suggest that you visit them. It is an excellent site that I do recommend.

  • Malcolm

    I think this is all a bit rich, considering that in the next post down you lift a story from the Telegraph verbatim, and publish it in your own name.

    Granted, you did link to the Telegraph article – but only on the word “Telegraph” in the phrase “Article 46 of the secret draft text, obtained by The Telegraph, says…”. Readers who didn’t follow the link would, I believe, think you wrote the story.

    Let’s face it, if Samizdata were more popular and the Telegraph noticed that you’d done that, they’d be livid. Why not paraphrase, at least giving some incentive you read the original (and thus the ads that pay for it).

    Self-righteously yours,
    etc. etc. 🙂

  • WTf is your point? Just feel like writing something nasty? All that most people care about is a link to the source and a mention. You don’t actually have to print the source in bold letters…yeesh.

  • Malcolm, coming straight from the Command Post where that is all we do, the priority was to publish the article. I was aware of lifting the text but the difference is that it was attributed. As you can see that in my ‘self-righteous’ article, I do say that one of our rules is to attribute if we lift text from somewhere, which is what I have done. I try to avoid verbatim lifting of text but as I said, posting both on The Command Post, Samizdata.net and trying to do my day job, has imposed some limitations on how much I can ‘paraphrase’. And the graphic should compensate for the lack of originality. 😛

    Still news is news. The difference is Sean-Paul was using and not attributing information from a subscription based service. Telegraph’s is in the public domain and if attributed, it would not be ‘livid’ that we are using it. As you yourself noticed in a recent guest article, apparantely they often seem to write about the same stuff as we in a very similar manner and never even mention us…

    If you can’t see the difference between my article and the Agonist controversy, then I don’t really care what you call me…

  • Well Malcolm, the Telegraph are well aware that we exist and in fact once linked to us as a source on their website.

    In fact, an article that once appeared in the Telegraph was ‘flateringly similar’ to something we had done the day before. We were not annoyed, we were vastly amused. They are not our competition and nor are we theirs.

    What we do is clearly ‘fair use’, which is a long established legal concept… what the blogosphere does is describing, expanding upon and criticizing media source material. That is not the same as just recycling it.

  • Malcolm

    Andrew and Gabriel: my point was simply that it wasn’t apparent that you’d lifted the text, and could (should?) have been made more so.

    Gabriel: the “self-righteously yours” sign-off was directed a me – an (obviously failed) attempt to undercut the intensity and remove any inferrable insult from my comment. I guess that backfired.

    Perry: the “fair use” aspect of lifting an entire article is arguable either way; but lifting an entire article without comment is indeed “just recycling” not “describing, expanding upon and criticizing”. IMO, the latter is indeed what is good about the blogosphere.

    Nothing I’ve seen on the Command Post looks like a whole original article, let alone one that has been lifted from elsewhere. It’s links, short extracts, and short descriptions, AFAICS.

    But I stand corrected on the Telegraph’s view.

  • “Sean-Paul”? That’s someone’s name?

    We’re sure it’s not really Jean-Paul?

  • Just to set the record straight: Stratfor never accused me of anything. The accusers were at Strategic Armchair command. The material I inexcusably did not link to was under their copyright.

    However, Stratfor and I have a very good relationship. They did not cancel my subscription and were pleased that I had been directing them business.

    I’m not making excuses for my actions. I was wrong and I came clean to my readers. Also, all posts are now attributed and/or linked. At this point I would say it is time for the readers to decide.