Fair use on the Internet

Ever since the explosion of the web journalists who publish online have been facing the problem of content theft much more than their print counterparts.  With how easy it is to cut and paste almost anything off the web it is no wonder people are having trouble holding onto their work.  However, just because it is becoming more common doesn’t mean it is right.  I am not saying every writer who has information stolen directly from their story should jump to sue the appropriator, but their needs to be a understanding of fair use of content among writers in all publishing forums.

The example of the theft of Washington Post writer Ian Shapira’s light feature, on a “business coach” who teaches companies how to talk to different generations of consumers, by the Gawker is a good example to use when talking about who owns content and how fair use comes into play.  After reading the first article by Shapira, the Gawker’s version, and the Shapira’s rebuttal, I can understand why this would be so frustrating to journalists and publications alike.  Shapira put way more time and money into his story than the Gawker did; the Gawker just chewed it up and put their own spin on things.  Shapira and WaPo had every right to be upset over the infringement on copyright.  However, with the way the news is shifting to this gnarled form of recycled and renewed online style of journalism writers and editors need to find a better way than attacking individual cases to make a difference.

To help me to understand why the idea of fair use is so important to understanding who has the right to content I looked at a lot of long-winded ethics pieces and angry writers who had been ripped off rant until I came across an article by Zachary Seward, of the Neiman Journalism lab.  It is a short piece that looks at the same example and I feel it captures my beliefs on the matter exactly.

Many will agree that content is owned by the writer and publication of any particular story.  Whether it be a blog or the Washington Post, as ethically sound journalists we should understand that it is wrong to steal direct information from other stories.  However, with the rise of the abundance of information the internet offers it is very tempting for some to cut and paste their stories together from the work of other journalists.  Seward’s piece argues that we need to weigh standards in fair use when examining cases such as the Shapira vs. Gawker case.  Standards, such as the extent of use of original content in the republication, whether the reuse is unique or just blatant copying, or how the commercial market is affected for the original content, need to be taken into account when deciding what is fair use online.

By looking at each of these we can begin to think about fair use in the sense that sometimes when content is taken it can be used in such a way that the reused information can lead the reader in a completely different direction.  I don’t believe it is inherently bad to borrow quotes or basic facts from another story if you are not going to simply reiterate what the original writer said.

Looking at fair use this way in fact enhances the idea of interactive journalism.  If alternative viewpoints are being created and the writer is not simply stealing ideas to make their job easier then like C. W. Anderson, blogger of J-School, I see fair use as being a new form of ethics that is going to need to be embraced in the age of the Internet newsroom.  The movement of journalism to the Internet has been creating these types of dilemmas that organizations like the Associated Press, who has been having a lot of issues with copyright infringement, didn’t think about dealing with as predominately print mediums.  In the 21st century’s journalism things are constantly changing and as journalists we need to learn to adapt to these changes.  The news is switching from a lecture to a conversation and more often you are going to see someone tearing apart your work on a blog or posting your breaking news on his/her Twitter account.  This doesn’t mean that when someone blatantly steals your original writing (things besides quotes and facts in your story) that you should ignore it.  As journalists we have the right to protect our work.

However, as journalists we must also embrace the fact that the rules and ethics are going to have to be changed to keep up with the new mode of distribution.  Our job as writers is to stimulate the public into engaging with each other, to get people to talk about things.  In the past people stood around the water cooler and discussed the news, today people post on their blog what they think.

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