A Plague on Plagiarism – but there’s a lot more at stake here than rip-offs By William Bowles

31 March 2006

Like a lot of other independent journalists I’ve seen my work published on corporate Websites without my permission (or without being paid) including al-Jazeera and Yahoo. The terms of my copyright are clearly laid out in my Creative Commons license (see below).

But worse still, mainstream publications seem to think that work produced by ‘Bloggers’ is there for the taking or, as one journalist put it, “in the public domain”. Even the use of the term ‘blogger’ is a deliberate ploy used to downgrade the value of the independent media, for what it does is draw a line between ‘real’ journalism and work that largely challenges the ideological view delivered by mainstream (corporate) journalism.

Thus the objective of the corporate press of having an online journal described as a ‘blog’ is to marginalise and downgrade it in the eyes of the reader.

I’ve no idea whether my work has been plagiarised by commercial (or non-commercial) publishers, nor whether it has been used as source material for work without my permission or knowledge). I do occasionally see portions of my work quoted by other writers most often with links to the original where appropriate.

And, when I use excerpts from writers, I always include credits and links and if needed, footnotes, it doesn’t require a university degree in journalism to figure out why it’s so important to adhere to a few basic rules, it’s just basic good sense so that neersayers and doubters can check up on the ‘facts’ should they so choose to do so.

The concept of ‘fair use’ is part of common law and typically covers reproduction for non-commercial, public interest or educational use but ‘fair use’ doesn’t mean a license to present someone else’s work as your own no matter who authored it.

All the other stuff about the ‘profession’ of journalism is mostly BS, and largely concerns issues of style and ‘convention’ and obviously making sense of the story for the reader, but even here, anybody who has read Hunter S. Thompson’s work will know that rules are made to be broken and that ‘truth’ in prose is an extremely fluid animal to grab hold of.

It goes without saying that a decent grasp of the language you write in is also helpful but you don’t have to be Mark Twain to get your story across. The ‘rules’, such as they are, are deliberately constructed to exclude all those who are not members of the ‘club’, that is to say, a set of arbitrary conventions about how a ‘news’ story should be constructed has been developed over time. These conventions follow a well-worn path; opening para should précis the story followed by a logical presentation of the ‘facts’ culminating in a conclusion.

It’s worth noting that bad writing, poor grammar and such is not confined to ‘amateurs’, and quite often badly constructed pieces are written to be quite deliberately opaque. The BBC is the past master at this kind of vague, difficult to penetrate, writing, where meanings get lost in a welter of ‘it is said’, ‘sources tell me’, ‘it is generally accepted’ are used instead of stating what is actually known to be true.

Thus one has to be a master of ‘reading between the lines’ and be aware of how the sense of a story is delivered via subterfuge and implications, pointing to the importance of developing a critical ability to separate sense from non-sense.

Popular journalism is not known for presenting stories in context, background history and so on, the argument normally being lack of space, thus important issues float in a contextual vacuum, where the true importance of vague assertions becomes apparent; for lacking any countervailing argument, they become substitutes for facts and end up as being accepted as ‘fact’.

All the rubbish talked about ‘objectivity’ and ‘neutrality’ is exactly that, rubbish. The most important thing for news and current affairs writing is that the reader has a clear sense of where the story is coming from, the rest is down to the reader; does the story reinforce or challenge your world-view? Does it make you think? Does it lead you to question or reinforce assumptions you may have about events and their causes?

I have no problem with non-commercial publishers republishing my work as I do here on InI. I figure the wider the audience, the better. It would be good to know who is publishing it and that they make all the right attributions etc and don’t mess with content.

Anyone who has read third party material on InI will see I always put in the link to the source and reproduce the work verbatim and unlike some, I rarely if ever, add my two-pennies-worth to the article in the form of comment.

Okay, that’s the basics out of the way, let’s get down to the nitty-gritty. There are two distinct but not unrelated issues to deal with, the first is the issue of plagiarism.

Judging by some of the emails I’ve been getting (which is the inspiration for this piece), it seems that there a number of so-called Bloggers having their original work ripped off by mainstream journalists.

The rationale being advanced by those doing the ripping off seems to go as follows:

‘Bloggers’ are it seems not ‘real’ journalists but are merely putting their work into the ‘public domain’ (this means waiving all rights as to ownership over who and how the work is used, but it doesn’t mean passing it off as your own work!):

“the purpose of a blog (as far as I am concerned) is to get information into the public domain.” – Unnamed ‘professional’ ie paid, journalist sent to me by a ‘Blogger’ whose work AP ripped off.

Now there are a couple points to make here. If the ‘blogger’ states that they waive copyright then fine (although attribution would be a courtesy) but even here, if a so-called professional journalist is so bereft of writing talent or so downright lazy as to simply lift the writing of others and pass it off as their own, then they need to be exposed for the frauds that they are.

If the ‘blogger’ uses some form of copyright control, then legally speaking, anybody using their work outside of the terms of the right to copy is technically breaking the law.

Thus my Creative Commons license runs as follows:

Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.5
You are free:
to copy, distribute, display, and perform the work

Under the following conditions:

Attribution. You must attribute the work in the manner specified by the author or licensor.

Noncommercial. You may not use this work for commercial purposes.

No Derivative Works. You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work.

For any reuse or distribution, you must make clear to others the license terms of this work.
Any of these conditions can be waived if you get permission from the copyright holder.

Your fair use and other rights are in no way affected by the above.

Couldn’t be clearer could it.

There is of course nothing to stop you defining your own terms of the RIGHT TO COPY. By definition, under the International Copyright Convention, the act of publishing is, in itself a sign of OWNERSHIP by the author/creator of a work. It needs only your name on the work identifying you as the author and it’s helpful to add a date of publication should there be an argument over who published what first if there’s an accusation of plagiarism. Some countries require that a minimum number of copies be created and/or available for sale in order to qualify as being published (in the UK I think it’s 10).

When I wrote music/scripts in the US, for a modest fee ($10 I think) I used to send two copies of the manuscript and tape of the song to the Library of Congress by registered post, where no doubt they collect dust to this day. This way, not only am I registering my right to ownership but importantly, the date I registered the song.

Of course enforcing your rights as to the terms of copying is another matter, but this is not the issue here as indeed is the issue of plagiarism, as it’s not at all easy to prove unless it consists of the wholesale copying of entire tracts and publishing them under your own name as the author. This highlights the importance of attribution for the work in question.

And plagiarism is not confined to ‘bloggers’ (I really hate this term!) versus ‘professional’ journalists. I know of plenty of examples where entire articles published commercially have been republished as the work of someone else in another commercial publication.

Thus the legal basis around publishing any creative work has absolutely nothing to do with whether you’re a ‘blogger’ or a blagger or even an employed journalist (in which case, you more than likely don’t own anything at all, as your work is regarded as a ‘work for hire’ and the copyright is owned by your employer).

As bad as ripping off writers is there is a far more important issue here, namely the challenge presented by the independent media to the stranglehold the corporate press has over news and information, which is why I contend the two issues are actually intimately connected.

The last thing the corporate/state media want is for the independent media to be seen as a reliable source of news and information that challenges their grip on our brains, so anything that diminishes the quality or reliability of the independent media is important.

So the tag ‘amateur’ or ‘blogger’ implies that the author has no grasp of the subject as does the totally erroneous assertion that ‘blogs’ are no more than diaries or the personal ramblings of an individual. Anything that diminishes the value of the work such as the accusation that ‘blogs’ are not researched and hence not reliable, or that ‘blogs’ are merely personal opinions without foundation is used as a hammer with which to beat us.

Without naming names, I can attest to the fact that there so-called professional journalists who not only have absolutely no grasp whatsoever of the power of the Web as a research tool (let alone how to use it effectively), especially the ability to cross-index sources in order find multiple sources (and interpretations) for a particular event, nor do they have much grasp of the history of the events they write about.

When I write a story let’s say on Haiti, the first thing I do is read up on the background and the events leading up to the situation I am writing about. This involves doing research and collecting as many facts and interpretations of events as I can find, including those of the ‘opposition. Not difficult but time-consuming.

And just the fact that independent Web-based news and information sources are used extensively by the MSM and that it admits to using these sources for commercial stories is surely proof that not only are we reliable but by and large do a better job of reporting the news than the MSM does.

And there is a certain irony in the fact that even though the MSM admits to sourcing stories to the independent media, it nevertheless still tries undermine our credibility.

Worse still is the reliance most MSM journalists make of ‘official sources’ or state propaganda as if because it is a government source, it is inherently reliable, attesting to the incestuous relationship that exists between the MSM and the state (not to mention the fact that as the corporate press is entirely dependent on advertising, cripples its ability to be truly independent from the get-go).

Not since the 19th and early 20th centuries has such an effective challenge been mounted that counters the power of capital and the state as expressed in the rise of independent journalism and why every tactic is being used to undermine our credibility.

The following exchanges are I think fairly typical of the relationship that exists between us, ‘citizen journalists’ and the MSM and reveal just how threatened the MSM feels by our encroachment on ‘their’ territory.

An independent journalist had her story lifted by a very big transnational news agency and a colleague got in touch with a professional journalist whose friend replied with the following:

“As for the piece – my heart bleeds. When I think of how much stuff I lift wholesale from AP and others, it seems to me that they are only getting their own back … I get a certain satisfaction from seeing that happen and am somewhat unconcerned about the need for ego-driven attribution. One is tempted to say “get over it”.

Obviously he is completely ignorant of the role of a newswire like AP. The whole point of newswire stories is for journalists writing stories to use newswires as source material and to credit their use. And quite often AP and other newswires have their stories reprinted verbatim in the MSM, again with the proper attribution. Quite often a newswire piece will be the actual core of the story with material added and the byline will reflect this.

And here is an example of how even so-called progressive journalists respond to being challenged over lifting stories from the independent media:

Nat Hentoff, who writes for the Village Voice, has freely lifted from my articles and never once attributed to me. The other day, he called me and asked me to send him two of my articles. Not only does he want to lift from me but he wants me to send them to him by mail! William Pitt of Truthout.org has also plagiarized from me AND added stuff that was grossly inaccurate. Disgusting. I try always to attribute. I believe people should know where the information comes from originally in order to make informed decisions. It isn’t about ego. It’s about courtesy and proper attribution and sourcing.

I might add that the quote above was sent to me from a person who has a law degree and has published legal and political commentary, has a book published and is frequently on the radio in the US.

AP, when challenged over lifting a story that originated with rawstory.com simply refused to attribute:

The Associated Press has confirmed using a Raw Story report as the basis for a Mar. 14 article detailing a change to national security clearance policies but has refused to issue credit for the piece. – From an email to me (See ‘Associated Press says they based article on Raw Story report but refuses to credit or correct’, John Byrne, March 28, 2006)
www.rawstory.com/news/2006/Associated
_Press_says_they_based_article_0328.html

The importance of this struggle cannot be over-estimated, it is central to the very essence of what journalism is all about; a skill that has been appropriated by the state (through the education system) and by the corporate world and made over into their exclusive property.

By creating their own definitions of what constitutes ‘real’ journalism, the state and big business has excluded all those who challenge the status quo which is why we see such reactions as the ones quoted above. Once the hegemony of the MSM’s coverage of events is challenged and exposed for what it really is-propaganda-the entire basis for the relationship between the media and the public is undermined, a situation that is obviously intolerable.

Addendum

I think I need to put my ‘credentials’ on the line, if only because those alleged journalists employed by the mainstream press and pissed off with the rise of ‘citizen journalism’ will try to diss me as being an ‘amateur’ (as if that automatically disqualifies one from the right to write about events but then that’s what the commodification and ‘professionalisation’ of ‘news’ is all about even as it’s justified in the name of ‘standards’).

I’ve worked in journalism since around 1982, in print, on the Internet, on radio and on television (as well as publishing journals including design and production). I’ve also lectured in online journalism at university, and I have work published in books and magazines in the US, South Africa and the UK (as well as innumerable Websites across the planet) and had my work translated into German, Arabic, Portugese and who knows what other languages. If you need more, check out my CV, it’s available online for all to see.

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