Monday, August 7, 2006

The Blogs Are Gonna Getcha

I'd rather be caught holding up a bank than stealing so much as a two-word phrase from another writer. ~Jack Smith

You may have noticed, if you ever got that far, that there is a copyright notice at the bottom of these pages. This is not because I'm worried someone is going to steal my work, because some would actually have to read this blog to steal something from it. No, I do just because it's a proper thing to do to lend a bit of professionalism to the page. It's not really required because any work is immediately copyrighted to its creator. You can get a copyright certificate if you're really into legalism, but that costs money, and I'm cheap.

I bring up the point about copyright because the geniuses at “USA Today” have discovered that there is plagiarism happening on the Internet. This is sort of like discovering that water is wet, but reporter Del Jones reports in a copyrighted article (notice how I'm covering my behind here?) puts the blame on blogs.

Of course. Blogs have become the root of all evil. Mr. Jones, in his article (which I do not claim to have written; copyright lawyers take note), neglects to mention that mainstream media journalists have also been known to do a little literary lifting, occasionally even stooping to stealing from – wait for it – blogs.

Conventional news streams seem obsessed with blogs these days. I don't know what the current count is, but there have to be over 30 million of the things out there, of which 99.9% are junk (make up your own mind about this one). The average life of a blog, I recall seeing a while back, is about two weeks, after which the author has run out of steam (I don't recall the source of that, but I assure you that I am not claiming to have done the research; it was done by some other soul who worked long and hard to count all those blogs and see how long they lasted). Why the New York Times, CNN, or the Wall Street Journal (all containing copyrighted material; okay, I'll stop now) should be afraid of Gog's Blog or any other Internet writing is beyond me.

Let's face it: Information on the 'Net that doesn't come from a reputable source is a crap shoot. Even some of the reputable sources fall on their faces now and then, but that seems to happen most often when they get their information from Wikipedia. Web sites in general, never mind bloggers, are noted for hyperbole and downright inaccuracy. Anyone can create a web site and put anything they want on it. If they refrain from issuing slanderous statements, advocating the violent overthrow of the government, or publishing overt hate speech, they can go crazy, which many do.

Does plagiarism go on? Yes it does, and it's wrong. Sometimes it's inadvertent, as noted in Mr. Jones' copyrighted -- no, I said I was going to stop that – Mr. Jones' article, because someone will see an article in a blog which, like this one, has a link to a story. But, when the someone writes his or her article, he/she attributes the material to the blogger, not to the original source. This isn't culpable, it's just laziness. Well, it could be cluelessness, but we'll give the someone the benefit of the doubt.

By the way, the article does mention one despicable action, that of spammers stealing content and planting links to their site. Not only is the original author not getting credit (or not getting paid), but the reader is faced with garbage ads and potentially damaging adware or spyware.

What to do, what to do? Naturally, the suggestion is made that what is needed is a high-profile, sue-them-for all-they've-got-including-the-wife-and-kiddies lawsuit. Well, that's certainly worked to stop auto manufacturers from making bad cars and doctors from making mistakes, so I'm sure that one big court case will stop Internet plagiarism in its tracks.

Right. And I'm going to wrinkle my nose and make a million bucks appear in front of me.

Jones' article has it right. He quotes writer Jim Berkowitz as saying, “People are incredibly sloppy.” Certainly that's true with blogs, and why should we expect otherwise? Most people are just thinking out loud when they write their entries. They're carrying on a conversation with the reader. If they were talking around the coffee machine at work, they probably wouldn't apply an attribution to every opinion they expressed that they originally heard somewhere else.

Mr. Berkowitz goes on to say, “ It's like the Wild West out there.” Perhaps. But I think the landscape of plagiarized material is a little more complex than that. On the one end, it's kind of a casual gathering of people saying what's on their mind, which they may have borrowed from someone else's mind. Technically, they're swiping other writers' material, but there's no attempt to gain from it, except maybe to sound a little smarter. At the other extreme, there's the Roaring Twenties, with spam gangsters using any means they can to fool people into jumping onto their sites. In the middle, you have the same sorts of people who have been stealing material for years. News services from some countries have never had any compunction about lifting material from news media in other countries and claiming it as their own. Or, as another example, big time news reporters have been filching small time local sources as long as there have been newspapers.

The middle group is the one that's got some explaining to do, because they know what they're doing, yet they continue to do so. Some web sites, desperate for material, have stooped to using the same tactics. In most cases, simply outing the miscreant is enough to put a stop to it. I suppose if someone tries to make a career of stealing other people's material, then legal action might be needed. But, as far as I'm concerned, don't waste time with the bloggers and the small-time web sites. Let loose the hounds of law on the spammers. Anything that happens to them is only fitting.

And here's a thought for the mainstream media: Quit worrying so much about the bloggers. There's little evidence to think that any of our vast mob is shaping public opinion one way or the other. If you're so afraid of us as competition, then maybe you should be improving your own content so that the casual reader can tell the difference between good reporting and the casual discourse of blogs.

Of course, if you folks in the media are looking for some good writers, you might just find some out here in the “Wild West.”

I'd name names, but modesty forbids.

No comments:

Post a Comment