Blogs and the attribution dilemma

I wasn’t going to jump into this one, mostly because it seemed kind of “inside baseball” (i.e., not that interesting to lots of people), but as we all know one of the main things the blogosphere likes to do is blog about blogging, so I thought I would take a crack at the Ars Technica brouhaha. Exhibit A is MG Siegler’s post at ParisLemon about what he calls “another classic rip off” by Ars Technica. You can read the post if you need to catch up on the details, but basically MG is saying that the site rewrote his post and never gave him credit for the idea.

This isn’t the first time that Ars has had such allegations leveled at it. As Cynthia Brumfield writes at IPDemocracy, an incident involving a link to one of her posts occurred back in 2006 and has even made it into the Wikipedia entry on Ars. In the comments on her latest post, Ars writer Nate Anderson takes issue with Cynthia’s characterization of events, however, saying it was a mistake that was corrected quickly and that she should have tried to contact someone at Ars before she flamed them in a post. In a response, Cynthia said that she had heard from many others who had had similar experiences.

In the interest of balance, I emailed Ars founder Ken Fisher to ask him for a comment on the allegations, and he said that in the case of IPDemocracy, it was a simple mistake in which “the link got removed accidentally in the editing phase,” that it was fixed as quickly as possible and that there was “no intent to deceive.” As for MG Siegler’s post, he said that Siegler wasn’t the only blog to make the comparison between the iPhone and the game of Risk (this blog also did) and that therefore he didn’t deserve a link. In any case, he said, Ars didn’t see Siegler’s post and wrote its own version at about the same time (the site said it was published later because editors were busy).

I emailed MG Siegler for a comment as well, and he said effectively the same thing as Fisher: that he didn’t link to the other blog with a similar post because he never saw it. However, he maintained that Ars must have seen his post and waited a few days before copying it, and said that the site has done similar things in the past. Since his post was published, he said that he gotten what he called “tons of emails” from other bloggers and writers who felt their work had been copied, and on his blog he said that “A LOT of… well respected and well placed people working in the industry out there have the exact same thoughts.”

This isn’t the first time this sort of thing has come up, obviously. Louis Gray wrote a post about how Mashable was “stealing the B-list buzz” by not providing proper attribution to him (Pete Cashmore and other Mashable writers commented on the post), and later posted a follow-up here. In the past, Mashable put a small “via” link at the bottom of a post, without any other link or attribution (as Adam Ostrow notes in a comment, that policy has changed since Louis’s post). I don’t know what the best approach is, but I know that it’s becoming more of an issue, and it’s something that every blogger should be thinking about when they write. I wrote about this before after Louis posted his thoughts.

As I said in that earlier post, I think the bottom line is that you should link as much as possible — links are the life-blood of the web, and they are how people find new sources of information. In some cases, I will go back and link to other blogs that have written about something I posted on long after I wrote the post. I think that’s part of what blogs (and the media in general) are supposed to be about. It’s more than just Digg submissions and Techmeme headlines.

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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