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social media plagiarism is standard practice at Fairfax

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It has become obvious to many Australian media consumers that some media corporations are engaging in widespread theft and plagiarism of social media content in a desperate attempt to publish information audiences want to consume.

The problem is audiences are already obtaining this content from its various sources and don’t need to see it recycled in newspaper websites, particular when it appears days or weeks after it was originally published elsewhere and we’ve already moved on. We also don’t like it when we see articles failing to attribute their sources, thus falsely implying that they are the product of original investigative journalism.

I reported last month that I had proof, including a written admission from a Fairfax Newcastle Herald editor, that it stole social media content from Facebook and republished it without acknowledging its source. The paper breached its own editorial policy (which forbids plagiarism and requires attribution) but refused to apologise for it or to correct the error.

In the last month more examples of social media plagiarism in Fairfax mastheads have been exposed, and it is obvious that the problem is endemic. This post will examine these acts of plagiarism, and discuss their similarities and what this means for the reputation of Fairfax.

On 14 December 2010 the Fairfax site WA Today published a public apology to photographer Stephen Humpleby after it stole one of his photos from his Flickr account and republished it without permission or attribution.

social media media internet intellectual property business

A screen capture of WA Today (link now dead) made on 14 December 2010

The apology is remarkable for its blatant lie about the Fairfax staffer not being aware of the image’s ‘licensing restrictions’. It’s impossible to not be aware of the licensing status of any image on Flickr, as this information is clearly displayed on every page.

Telling lies in a facile attempt to justify your unethical and unprofessional behaviour only exacerbates the extent of your unethical and unprofessional behaviour. It’s quite pathetic and seems to absurdly assume that the falsehood won’t be noticed or challenged.

On 4 January 2011 Fairfax sites published two articles containing plagiarised content. First, the Sydney Morning Herald published a photo stolen from Iain Triffitt’s Twitter account and republished it without attribution.

Iain tweeted ‘Dear @smh_news – you posted my photo without attribution or offer of payment. Is that your standard social media policy?’ A reply came (via email), which Iain also tweeted, stating that the SMH believed that ‘Twitter’s terms and conditions don’t oblige us to attribute non-private images’.

Hmm. The Twitter terms and conditions are not particularly relevant here, Fairfax editorial fucktard. Try reading your own editorial code of ethics. It states that ‘Staff will not plagiarise’ and ‘Staff will seek to attribute information to its source.’ But, like, whatevs.

Finally, Iain tweeted ‘Just got an e-mail from Fairfax regretting the error and agreeing to add attribution.’ You can see the eventual attribution below. I recommend reading Iain’s detailed analysis of his experience.

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A screen capture of the SMH made on 4 January 2011

In response, Twitter user Sylvano posted a link to a recent article reporting on a lawsuit involving the theft of Twitter content. It quotes a US judge as stating that ‘The provision that Twitter ‘encourage[s] and permit[s] broad re-use of Content’ does not clearly confer a right on other users to re-use copyrighted postings.’ Fairfax’s lawyers should pay careful attention to that.

Second, in the other example from 4 January, I read about a restaurant reviewer being ejected from a Los Angeles restaurant and thought it sounded familiar. Oh yes, I had already read about it via a link from a food blogger on Twitter before Christmas. How last year.

The story featured on Eater and Gawker on 22 December 2010 and the next day in the LA Times (which acknowledged both these sites). In the Age and the SMH the story did not acknowledge any sources and thus read like original reporting, but it wasn’t. It’s summer filler stolen by morons (aka journalists) with the tacit approval, or perhaps at the explicit direction, of Fairfax editors.

I posted a tweet saying ‘Another Fairfax article that unethically fails to acknowledge sources http://bit.ly/hKYq2a – this broke before xmas! Nasty lazy journalism’.

I know you’re reading me, you Fairfax losers, because later that day the article was altered to add a link to the Eater post, which you can see in bold blue below. Why was the link added? Because the criticism was valid.

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A screen capture of the Age made on 4 January 2011

Why didn’t the Age include a proper attribution (like the eventual result in the previous example) as standard practice? They routinely ignore their own editorial policy when it comes to social media because citizen journalists and small internet businesses are unlikely to sue large media corporations.

There’s a clear pattern here:

  1. plagiarise social media content
  2. stall, delay, prevaricate, lie and make excuses if you get caught
  3. if those pesky bloggers keep insisting on their moral rights then cave in and add an attribution
  4. refuse to apologise
  5. refuse to acknowledge the error by failing to publish a separate apology unless forced to by legal threats or complaints to the Australian Press Council

This behaviour is either incompetence or deliberate premeditated negligence, and it’s difficult to tell which. It may be both.

If it’s incompetence, then the company should address the ignorance of its staff by training them appropriately about copyright and attribution, reminding them of their existing editorial policies and clarifying that these policies also apply to social media sources.

They may claim ignorance but this is no excuse. Ignorance is not an excuse in law. You can’t claim not to know certain behaviour, such as theft, is against the law. You are expected to be aware of the law, and Fairfax’s public editorial policies demonstrate that it knows about copyright law.

Fairfax is not ignorant, but it is arrogant. It thinks that it should be protected by media laws while being free to break the same laws to steal and plagiarise social media content. Fairfax doesn’t seem to think social media is worthy of respect, and thus it should not have apply the same editorial standards to it that it does to traditional sources.

This willful indifference to the law Fairfax relies on to do business is indicative of its profound negligence of its role as a media company and the purpose of its journalism. This plagiarism is not journalism. Fairax is not a media company. This is petty theft by a common criminal.

Fairfax will do anything to make money, including rapidly trashing its own reputation through its crass and vapid pursuit of free content to republish, which is of course filled with junk advertising. The collapse of the advertising business model suggests that the commercial media industry is in decline. Good riddance.

I think I’ve found my mission for 2011. I want to encourage my fellow content creators to gather evidence of Australian commercial media’s plagiarism of social media. Make screen shots. Document correspondence to media companies. Send emails, rather than making phone calls, to encourage written responses. It makes for better evidence in court.

I’m putting out a call for a media savvy lawyer willing to do some pro bono work on this issue. So, my commercial lawyer / food blogger friends, who do you know? I’d like to establish a class action lawsuit against Fairfax. We’ll do our best to embarrass them and hold them to account.

I daydream about a media suit making a statement after his corporation is found guilty of deliberate repeated plagiarism and saying ‘I would have gotten away with it if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids…

3 comments

  1. /awaits the backlash from Fairfax supporters who got up in arms last time Brian criticised the organisation.

  2. Haha… Not on holiday — not a troll either — but I neither disagree with this particular post nor find Brian’s tone annoying as it has been in the past when addressing this topic. Do not assume that we “trolls” disagree for the sake of being difficult!

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