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On Fair Use and Aggregation in the Internet Age September 28, 2011

Posted by Peter Varhol in Publishing.
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The Internet has spawned enormous changes in the once-staid and stable publishing industry. One of those changes has been aggregation and reprinting. Aggregation is when an article aggregates information from multiple sources, but adds nothing new of its own. Reprinting is reprinting whole the text of another, including use of their name (replacing their name with your own is another ball of wax, call plagiarism).

There are two concepts of interest here. The first is legal, that of fair use. In plain terms, fair use says that it is legal to cite a copyright work with proper attribution, unless too much of that work is included in your text. The question of how much is too much was an ongoing debate long before the Internet.

The second is journalistic custom. Traditionally journalists have been trained to recognize the work of others and give credit appropriately. Further, the custom is to cite and recognize that work when you have something to add to it, in the form of additional reporting or analysis.

There’s more to this, of course. For example, the concept of copyright changes depending on whether you register the copyright. It’s possible to claim copyright by simply declaring on the item that it is copyrighted. However, in order to collect damages, the copyright must be registered, which few do these days.

There were debates surrounding these topics well before the Internet, but because publishing (which included printing) was an expensive endeavor, they tended to be well-bounded with similar-thinking people. The Internet, of course, changed that. The universe of possible publishing outfits is more or less infinite (irony intended), and just about anyone can have a voice in the debate. In some cases, those voices simply harmonize others.

Journalists would like for the old customs to have force in the Internet. Those that do the work of original journalism should be recognized, rewarded, and protected. Aggregators and re-publishers believe they serve an audience that is not served by original journalism. So who’s right?

Here’s my thing. Since 1988 I would venture to say that I’ve written thousands of items for publication (I’ve never kept track or attempted to count). By far most of them have been eminently forgettable. A few (a painfully small few) have been noteworthy. Let me talk about one of those in particular.

Approximately a decade ago I had a brief (about a year and a half) column in an engineering periodical in which my charter was to write about anything of interest to an engineer that didn’t involve engineering. I wrote a lot about working in a professional job, in an office, and a surprising number of these were actually pretty good. One in particular, called Managing Conflict in the Workplace, actually has a bit of a cult following. Today, if you google me, you will find an entire category of searches called “peter varhol managing conflict in the workplace”.

It was published far beyond the original engineering periodical, and translated into at least six different languages. The 1500-word piece has been cited in academic papers, by self-help gurus, and by workplace experts. The original engineering periodical republished it last year as one of its most popular articles. If I am to be remembered after my death, it may well be for that single column.

I’m pretty sure that few of the places it has appeared received formal permission to reprint it, or attributed it to the publication that paid me for it. In one case, I was asked permission directly, which I gave, not remembering if my contract even gave me that right. The versions and citations I’ve found used my name, but there are likely other versions that don’t.

The point is, I find it rather flattering, was compensated for my time and intellectual effort (such as it was), and don’t feel the need to be paid beyond that. I like that my name is associated with it in some of these, but don’t know or particular care about those cases in which it was not. I was an accidental journalist, not trained in the field or steeped in its customs. I can understand the importance of clips and attribution in the print era – real estate was scarce, and publishing was the currency by which you advanced. I don’t think that’s really the case any more.

Journalists today need to have a similar attitude. Loudly demanding your traditional due may help blow off steam, but it’s almost certainly not going to change anything. The game may not be to your liking, but it’s the game you have to play. Learn how to play it by the evolving rules of the business.

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