The elephants are fighting. The ants are nervous

The website Moneyweb broke the story of Defencex, an alleged Ponzi scheme which caught 200 000 people in its web, early this year. It was a big story, and it brought them thousands of readers.

A couple of weeks later, intrepid Moneyweb journalist Malcolm Rees paid R800 to attend a Defencex event where Chis Walker, the head of the scheme, spoke for the first time. Another scoop.

The following day, rival site Fin24 – whose reporter had been unable to get into the meeting – published what appeared to be a simple rewrite of the Moneyweb article, with just one mention of their source, almost the identical headline and no link back to the original article, which is the convention on the internet. They did not mention their own failure to get the story. They tweeted it and their site got a flood of visitors. They were fortunate in that a Google search put the Fin24 article above the original Moneyweb one.

According to Moneyweb, Fin24 had invested nothing in the story, “slavishly copied” their work, and effectively stolen the benefits of it. They claim that Fin24 is a low-cost operation that does very little original journalism, but has a small team that combs the internet for other peoples’ material, makes minor changes and offers it with little or no attribution. This is a common internet phenomenon – the aggregation or curation of other people’s material.

Citing a number of cases, Moneyweb has taken Fin24 to court to stop this practice and get compensation. “I consider this to be dishonest plagiarism of the highest order, which is unlawful,” Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk said.

He charges that “systematic plagiarism on an industrial scale” is Fin24’s business model. Jannie Momberg, editor-in-chief of News24, which includes Fin24, argues that his team had “played by the rules of fair usage, in line with international standards. We do attribute, we do hyperlink.”

It is complicated. Nobody can own a news story once it is out there, and it is usually in the public interest for it to spread as widely as possible. But who is going to invest in complicated and risky investigative journalism if others can just steal it and take the credit, the audience and the revenue that goes with it?

This is not a new problem. Competitive news media have always used each other’s story and journalists want their stories to gain traction in other media. Conventions have built up over time over what is considered “fair usage”. The rule generally is to attribute the story to whoever first reported it and add sufficient of your own work and material to ensure it isn’t just plagiarism. Our copyright law recognises this as legitimate in the treatment of news and current affairs.

So the Times Media Group, for example, has a code that says: “We give credit whenever we use another person or entity’s words, ideas, opinions or theories … we do not borrow excessive amounts of copy, even when properly attributed … ” Our Press Code is clear: “Journalists must not plagiarise”.

In old media, the news cycle was slow enough that the originator of a story could “own” it for a time, while others caught up on it. Digital media means that the information moves much faster and a rival site can spot, copy and put their own story up within seconds. The shelf-life of the scoop – and therefore its value – is reduced to nothing in the hands of the unscrupulous.

It is a global problem. The massively successful Huffington Post infuriated the US news industry by starting life without reporters and aggregating the material – and stealing the audience – from more serious publications.

Moneyweb’s case promises to provide a new set of rules for a new digital era, and clarify what is fair and reasonable media practice. “It is a great opportunity for the court to provide proper guidelines, so we welcome it,” Momberg says.

This is a battle of our media giants, as Moneyweb is owned by Caxton and Fin24 by Nasper’s Media24. The elephants are fighting and the ants are watching, as always, nervously.

*Full disclosure: Caxton and Media24 both contribute significantly to Wits Journalism, where Harber is Caxton Professor of Journalism. This column first appeared in Business Day, September 19, 2013

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