One of the complaints that we hear often from various publishers is the idea that, without copyright, other sites could simply copy all content. In fact, this is the big complaint we keep hearing from newspapers these days — the idea that they do all this expensive “reporting,” and then along comes some “blog” that just copies the work, with a bit of commentary and gets all the traffic. I tend to point out that this is a silly position to take. The thing is I say that even though I’ve experienced being on the “other” side of this discussion, and not with a smaller site, but a larger one. For quite some time a publication (that will remain nameless) that is larger and more well known than us had a habit of “rewriting” stories that were found on Techdirt, as well as a few other moderately popular blogs, without any credit. It became quite obvious that this was happening — especially on stories that I would sit on for a couple weeks for various reasons, only to post them and see a very similar story pop up six hours later on this other site. The timing was uncanny. I finally asked a writer at the site about one such story, and was told that the editor had sent him my story, but said that since he did additional reporting on it, they felt no need to credit me — and even claimed that this was the same stance that “real reporters” took, such as the AP and Reuters. Of course, that’s not quite true, and the AP just changed its credit policies, so that it will clearly credit any publication that publishes a story before they do.
Now, I can already hear critics of Techdirt furiously writing their “you hypocrite…” comments, but let me finish before declaring that. At no point did I think this was wrong, and it most certainly was not illegal. But I did think that it was not very nice and not very neighborly. One of the nice things about many blogs is that they’re quite generous with “hat tips” and giving credit to other sites where they find things. Those links may not have much overall impact, but it’s just a social nicety. At one point, I tried to make this point to an editor at that other publication — again, trying to point out in as friendly a manner as possible, that it was the nice or neighborly thing to do to simply give a little “found via” or “so and so alerted us to…” link. My point wasn’t that they had to do this, or that not doing it was “harming” me in any way. In fact, it was unrelated to us directly. I pointed out that from a perception standpoint, I was actually worried this would hurt that other publication’s reputation. I pointed out that I wasn’t the only one noticing this, and that some other sites were as well — and that the potential “cost” of having people criticize them for “not being nice” over such a practice — even if it was perfectly legal — could be quite high as compared to the “cost” of providing a simple hat tip.
Eventually, two things happened. A few stories were written on other sites about this publication, falsely accusing it of “stealing” stories from other sites. I didn’t think those stories were accurate or fair, because no stories were “stolen,” but it did create a reputation issue for the publication, and in response that publication quickly became much better about giving “credit” to where it found the stories, even when it did significant reporting on its own. In my eyes, the reputation of this site increased quite a bit, not because it was obeying any law, or doing what it “had” to do — but because it started doing the nice and neighborly thing to do.
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