My Twitter friends and feeds have been talking almost non-stop this past week about the accusations of content theft at The Huffington Post, or specifically, their Chicago-targeted site.
The allegations, which were first filed on December 18th and expanded later the same day, center around a series of Chicago-area concert previews that were plucked from various sources, including The Chicago Reader (who first noticed the copies), Centerstage and Time Out Chicago.
In all of the cases sited, the full concert preview was taken, though the previews themselves were fairly short, and a link was given back to the original site. The original authors were, understandably, very upset about this and lashed out at the HuffPo, resulting in the Wired article above. In that article, Jonah Peretti, co-founder of the HuffPo, said that the accusations were “overblown” and that the “complete re-printing was a mistaken editorial call and that The Huffington Post’s intention in aggregating other publications’ content is to send traffic their way.”
Since the original allegations, the HuffPo has removed all of the full articles, scaling them back to short snippets. While this is definitely a step in the right direction, it has done little to satiate a very strong backlash over Twitter and other services.
So, I wanted to take a moment to discuss this and see if, perhaps, we can put much of this behind us and get on with our holidays, whatever they might be.
No Axe to Grind
People who read this site regularly know that I have no political axe to grind. During the election, I wrote about the Obama, McCain and Biden plagiarism scandals. Of the three, the only one I found any merit in was the Biden one specifically the plagiarism questions that came up during his college years
With that in mind, it is clear that this scandal has become politically charged. Since the Huffington Post is well-known for being left-leaning, it has been largely right-wing bloggers and Twitter userss that have been taking up the issue. As with most copyright/plagiarism scandals, it has been more about tarnishing reputation than actual copyright infringement. In short, what started out as a disagreement between concert reviewers and the HuffPo has turned into a reason trash the politics of the site.
I, personally, do not find that acceptable. Not only does it cheapen the very real concerns of copyright holders, but it uses copyright and content theft issues as a tool to achieve an unrelated end. Since there is not as much to the scandal as some people want to believe, this helps create a mentality where it is OK to “cry wolf” and that, in the long run, hurts copyright holders with serious concerns.
As I See It
The big question everyone wants to know is whether the Huffington Post did something wrong? My answer is yes. Taking full reviews, even with attribution, is bad form and a probable copyright infringement. The Huffington Post definitely did something it shouldn’t and the original reviewers were right to be mad. I think, all in all, the response of the people infringed was within reason (though not necessarily the steps I would have taken).
However, The Huffington Post did take quick action, after being notified, to correct the mistake. I do believe that the editorial policy is, as Peretti put it, to “tease” the article, “pull a piece out of it” and “have a headline or link out.” That is how most of the content I’ve seen on the HuffPo works, though I grant I am not a regular reader of the site and have only seriously read it these past few days to check for any problems.
It is important to remember that the HuffPo is a company with dozens of reporters and, when you have that many employees, mistakes happen, employees go off the script and writers violate policy, intentionally or not. This is the same with any newspaper (IE: Jayson Blair) and any company of size.
Since I’ve started PT, I’ve gotten dozens of “tips” from people about major sites that have been engaging in content theft and/or plagiarism. I’ve researched them all and, in every case, found that it was a rogue employee and the editors, when properly notified, took action. I’ve reported on none of them since there was nothing to be gained. These cases have involved technology blogs, video game sites, cooking magazines and more.
None of these cases blew up like the HuffPo controversy, even though most were public even before I got involved. The reason is that cooking and video games don’t inspire the same amount of interest in discrediting the other side that politics does, plain and simple.
I’ve said it a thousand times before, but I will say it again, using plagiarism/copyright infringement/content theft as a tool for political gain not only cheapens the political issues, but hurts copyright holders. This issue, at the moment, appears to be resolved and the backlash against the HuffPo seems to be far out of proportion with the actual infringement.
Should the original reviewers be upset? Yes. They have a right. But if this wasn’t the Huffington Post and was a no-name blog or a site about tourism, the issue would be resolved already. The scandal and interest stem only from the politics and the popularity of the HuffPo, two things that should have no bearing.
So please, can we all just put down the daggers and come together a little bit. It’s the holidays, at least here in the U.S. and I think we all have better things to do…