It’s been a while since we heard from the high court about the case in which financial news site Moneyweb is suing financial news site Fin24 for copyright infringement.
But after a silence of nearly eight months, Moneyweb editor Ryk van Niekerk has filed an affidavit which replies to 24.com’s editor in chief Jannie Momberg’s initial defence, which claimed Fin24 was doing no more than aggregating content in the same way Google News or The Huffington Post or even Moneyweb does.
The complaint was originally brought almost a year ago, when Moneyweb accused Fin24 of out-and-out plagiarism for aggregating news articles and copying text without correct attribution. Seven articles were admitted as evidence, and the crucial ones relate to Moneyweb’s investigation of Defencex where stories were copied almost verbatim without attribution.
The case is far from unique. Newspaper publishers have been cribbing stories from each other from the dawn of the industry, updating “late editions” of city papers with themes from other outlets. The problem in the modern age is that it’s unbelievably easy to do this – the internet is a giant copying machine which allows words (and music and videos) to be reproduced for free, and the problem of how to reward original creators is one that’s unlikely to be solved by the South African High Court.
(You really need to read Nick Davies’ excellent Flat Earth News to understand how the mechanics of news have always functioned and how the internet and pressure to gain eyeballs on web pages has driven them into crisis.)
All web publishers have their own formal or informal guidelines regarding sourcing stories from other people. Some will want to independently research everything they write. Even the Guardian’s Alan Rushbridger, however, is known to often quote Jeff Jarvis’ maxim “Do what you do best, link to the rest”.
That’s certainly our philosophy here at htxt.africa. We recognise that we’re a small team and can’t cover everything, so we link to other people’s stories when we think there’s something really interesting we didn’t get to that’s worthy of a read. We aim to do this transparently without taking anything from the original authors. We also believe, however, that copyright in its current form is entirely unfit for purpose on the internet and that cases like Moneyweb v Fin24 won’t actually achieve that much. Hence the reason we publish under a Creative Commons licence.
But what court cases like this do throw up is some really interesting information. van Niekerk’s affidavit is fascinating because there are large sections of analysis which uses specific examples to show how the giant echo chamber of news works. He highlights examples of stories where things work well, with extra information and opinion added at every point, and examples where it’s not – where chunks of copy are ripped off without attribution.
The most interesting part of it, however, is where Moneyweb’s research team have gone to great lengths to analyse Fin24’s output over a year. What’s astonishing, for me, is not that Fin24 aggregates news – since that’s an official part of the site’s editorial policy – but how little it does.
Of “around 10 000” stories published in a year – which I assume is 2013 but isn’t made clear – Moneyweb’s researchers claim that only 205 were aggregated stories, and only 11 came from Moneyweb. That seems surprisingly conservative unless you take the lines above into account. According to Moneyweb, Fin24 produced only 950 original stories in-house, and commission 237 pieces of freelance.
A staggering 8 200 – or 82% – of stories were wire copy, produced by three news agencies Reuters, SAPA and AFP.
And this, to me, underlines a more pressing problem with media. The dependency on wire copy is huge – the same stories and the same words are endlessly recycled everywhere. Every major publisher in South Africa subscribes to the wire agencies for online copy (although not so much in print) and derives a lot of traffic from it. Sometimes it’s a valuable source of breaking news – who has court reporters other than SAPA these days? – but often it’s just a filler while you focus on “what you do best”. The problem is that it’s not very diverse, and it’s an outdated crutch.
Worse, local news agency SAPA is in trouble – apparently the controversial owner of Independent Media, Iqbal Surve, is looking to purchase it – which raises big questions about the value news organisations are providing readers now and in the future. Personally, I’d rather see a news landscape where – for example – we send readers to Moneyweb for financial news we don’t cover, and they send readers here for the latest on IT innovation.
Sadly, I also suspect journalists and editors are too competitive to ever actual do that in a friendly and hands-offish manner. But who knows, perhaps Moneyweb versus Fin24 will actually get us all thinking about the things that matter and putting the interests of readers above the base business considerations.
Then again, we all have to eat… but does it have to be each other?[Image – CC by Millstoned]