Gawker, the WaPo and the death of journalism

In yet another exhibit in the ongoing debate about what constitutes fair use online, Washington Post reporter Ian Shapira writes about how Gawker Media “ripped off” a recent story he wrote. In addition to this pejorative (and arguably also inaccurate) description, Shapira also uses a considerable helping of hyperbole in referring to his tale as “The Death of Journalism, Gawker Edition.” He describes at some length how Gawker lifted a liberal number of quotes and other information from his story, which he says he spent hours acquiring through in-person interviews and so on.

So if the Gawker item is a “rip-off,” which most people would take to mean a wholesale plagiarisation of the original, then there must be no reference to the Post story as the source, and no links either, right? Wrong. Shapira notes that Gawker links to his story high up in its piece, but says that there is “no direct mention of the Post.” In other words, linking is somehow not good enough any more. So there’s no reference to the Post at all then? Er, not exactly. There is a link and reference at the bottom of the piece, in the same way that many blog posts use the “via” link. That doesn’t seem to be enough for Mr. Shapira, however.

If you want to look at the facts of this case in more detail, Zachary Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab has done an excellent job of parsing the specifics, including the number of words in each piece, the number of “original” words, the estimated time it would take to produce each one, and — most importantly — the number of links and traffic to each, and how high each piece ranks in a Google search for the topic (key ingredients in what Jeff Jarvis and others call the “link economy,” a term that some argue is inaccurate, including Tim O’Brien of the NYT).

I think a couple of elements in this case are particularly interesting: One is that Shapira says at the beginning of his piece that when he first came across the Gawker post, he was happy — and even flattered — that the site had referred to his story and linked to it. He only got mad when his editor told him that he should be, saying the website “stole” his story and asking him why he wasn’t outraged. The more he thought about it, the madder he got. Why? Because he did all the work, he says, but apparently didn’t get enough credit (he should try working for a wire service, where that kind of thing is considered routine).

The other thing that’s interesting is that the Gawker item had not one but three links to the Post, and an explicit mention of the source. Shapira admits that these links drove traffic, but seems to be arguing that they just weren’t prominent enough, or not obvious enough, or something along those lines (some, including Alan Murray of the WSJ, argue this is Google’s fault). William Mougayar responded to me on Twitter that the credit given to the Post was “like a footnote” — and that got me thinking. We’re perfectly comfortable with long excerpts from other people’s work in other places when they are given just a footnote. Why is this case so different? It even includes traffic, which scholarly footnoting rarely does.

I’d be willing to agree that Gawker could have — and maybe even should have, in an ethical sense — mentioned Shapira and his story specifically. But there is no way in heck that a post with three links and an explicit reference to the source constitutes anything approaching a “rip-off” or the “death of journalism.” How about the death of hyperbole, and the rebirth of rational debate about the value of linking and traffic, and/or the ethics of sourcing online? That would be nice.

GateHouse: O hai, internetz — we r fail

With David Carr’s argument that newspapers should ignore the Web only a few days old — not to mention Joel Brinkley’s suggestion that anti-trust violations are a viable business model — I thought the market for stupid newspaper-related activity was pretty well saturated. But apparently I was wrong. It seems that GateHouse Media, which owns a number of regional papers in the U.S., is suing the New York Times for linking to its content. Yes, you read that correctly — it is suing to stop the NYT from linking.

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New York Times + external links = smart

There have been hints for awhile now that the New York Times was going to start adding links to third-party content on its front page, and now it appears to have finally happened, with the launch of something called Times Extra. The paper has been doing this for some time now on its technology front page, using links aggregated by BlogRunner — the meme-tracker the company acquired a couple of years ago — as well as through content-syndication agreements with blog networks like GigaOm (which I write for), as well as VentureBeat and Read/Write Web.

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Linking isn’t defamation, judge says

Jon Newton, who runs the Canadian peer-to-peer news site p2pnet, says a British Columbia judge has ruled in his favour in a defamation lawsuit launched by a former Green Party official. This official argued that by linking to articles which he claimed were defamatory, p2pnet also engaged in defamation — and he sued half a dozen other websites for linking to the same material, and reportedly threatened to sue even more to force them to remove the links and references. According to B.C. Supreme Court judge Stephen Kelleher, however, linking by itself is not sufficient to make a case for defamation. Kelleher said:

“Without proof that persons other than the plaintiff visited the defendant’s website, clicked on the hyperlinks, and read the articles complained of, there cannot be a finding of publication.”

However, the judge added that:

“I do not wish to be misunderstood. It is not my decision that hyperlinking can never make a person liable for the contents of the remote site. For example, if Mr. Newton had written ‘the truth about Wayne Crookes is found here’ and ‘here’ is hyperlinked to the specific defamatory words, this might lead to a different conclusion.”

The legality of linking has been a thorny issue for some time, both in the U.S. and elsewhere. As this handy guide from the Chilling Effects website describes, linking to certain material — including that which infringes copyright — has been found to be illegal by the courts in the past. Google itself has been forced to remove certain links from its search results, including (in one case) links to sites where users could download copyright-infringing copies of the Kazaa Lite software. The Electronic Frontier Foundation has a rundown on some cases as well.

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Is the link economy really broken?

It happened amid the stream of Twitter messages about the vice-presidential debates between Sarah Palin and Joe Biden, so a lot of people probably missed it, but Allen Stern of Centernetworks said something that really caught my eye: “it’s clear the link economy is broken.” Why did he say that? The link in his message went to a post at CNET’s “The Social” blog by Caroline McCarthy, about how Friendster now supports Facebook apps — a post that contains nine links. Of those nine links, two-thirds are internal only; in other words, they link only to CNET articles. The other three link to the Friendster website, the Facebook website and the Bebo website, which means they add zero value (or almost zero) to the overall post.

This is an issue that comes up periodically (one of the last ones to bring it up was Tim O’Reilly, in a great post). It’s fueled by the desire on the part of sites like CNET to prove how authoritative they are by making it look as though the only stories worth linking to are their own. I have nothing against CNET as a news site, and I think Caroline does some fine blogging, but to say that their internal links are better than anything else they could possibly link to is just ridiculous. It seems obvious that they either didn’t even bother to look for other information to link to, or there’s an internal policy to promote their own material. Both of those things are wrong.

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