Who Owns The News? And Where's Your Outrage, Man?

There is a fascinating debate raging about who owns the news -- or more precisely, who owns which parts of a news story. The AP kicked it off in earnest last April when Chairman Dean Singleton channeled his inner Howard Beale and announced the AP would no longer "stand by and watch others walk off with our work . . . . We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more." Just a few days ago, the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard posted a confidential AP document outlining an aggressive online strategy, which led Reuters blogger Felix Salmon to rail against the AP's "be-evil" policy. The AP and other traditional news organizations, on the other hand, have suggested that nothing less than the future of journalism is at stake here, because journalism can't survive if everyone is free to "steal" content.

So far this debate has played out largely in generalities and hypotheticals, but a recent complaint from Washington Post writer Ian Shapira helps focus us on some of the specifics. Last month, Shapira wrote an article about business coach Anne Loehr, who charges clients big bucks to help them understand the "millennial generation." The same day, Gawker ran its own take on Loehr's business. The headline: "'Generational Consultant' Holds America's Fakest Job." Gawker went on to use lots of quotes from Loehr that ran in Shapira's article to skewer her in precisely the way the headline suggests, but used little else from Shapira's article.

Shapira was "flattered." Then his editor wrote him back and said: "They stole your story. Where's your outrage, man?"

Flattery quickly turned into disenchantment and a long complaint from Shapira that ran in the Post under the headline "The Death of Journalism (Gawker Edition)." In it, Shapira worried about the profitability of newspapers, the future of journalism and other issues of legitimate concern. His basic complaint was simple: he busted his hump to interview Loehr and get the quotes Gawker used for free.

And that's the interesting part. What Gawker took were for the most part Loehr's words, not Shapira's. Gawker found a news story, and decided it had something to say about it, humorous as it was. It used Loehr's quotes to mock her. Shapira worked hard to chase down the facts he reported. But they were just facts.

So who owns those facts? That's the real question raised by Shapira's complaint, and by the repeated demands by the AP and others to extend legal protection for news stories, whether through expanded copyright protection or reinvigorated unfair competition rules.

When you hear these demands, it's important to remember news stories are already protected by copyright, which protects all of the story's original expression -- the way it reports the facts. But copyright does not give reporters or news organizations any rights in the facts themselves, no matter how hard they work to uncover those facts. So as news organizations like the AP demand greater and greater legal protection, it's the facts they're going after. It has to be. They own the expression. The facts are really all that's left.

This is where the alarm bells should go off. Journalists and news organizations do play a critical role in building an informed and democratic society. They are entitled to protect the product of their hard work. But the facts they report are not theirs. They are the product of human activity. They represent knowledge itself. They don't belong to anybody, and shouldn't.

In the rush to save newspapers, we can't give away the news itself. If that's what Shapira, the AP, or anyone else wants, then then they're stealing from all of us. So where's the outrage, man?

Comments

as filtered with what ever color glasses (pink,black white) or statisticaly slanted numbers or ...

I think the news has to go web based, the bias that you see from the media is astounding if you actually know of the real events first. In the UK there seems to be a lot of use of the media to pursue political objectives, and that means the blatant distortion of facts (otherwise known as lying). One noticable trend at the moment here is the push to demonise "binge drinking" in order to facilitate a massive tax hike on alcohol, the media however do not seem forthcoming with the news that the medical definition of binge drinking has been changed to someone who has 2 or 3 drinks in an evening (not every evening, just once is enough). That is not binge drinking and it can hardly be described as ethical journalism to hide the truth for such an iniquitous reason.

The problem as I see it is that Gawker had no idea whether what it published actually was true. Gawker's article trashed Ms. Loehr based entirely on what the Post discovered and reported. It would be lovely if the Post had gotten something wrong and Gawker were sued by Loehr. Their entire defense would be that they actually have no idea if what they wrote was true -- they just read about it in the Post -- a publication they themselves proceeded to trash thoroughly.

All this second hand reworking and regurgitating of news reported by others gives accuracy and verification short shrift. The result is a game of "telephone" where serial repetition degrades the original to the point where it may provide only a dim and distorted reflection of the originally-reported information.

So Fazano, how do we know what these "facts" that everyone owns really are? If we continue to denigrate the work of actual journalists, they will eventually disappear along with all the facts that they used to discover and report. After all, the snarks at Gawker don't have the skills or inclination to do the hard work of uncovering them.

If you're willing to shut everyone else down, stifle their voices, then you can disappear and I won't complain. Go ahead, hurry up and disappear.

What the traditional media have is their reputation. Reputation gives credibility to the "facts" they report.

By way of example, we might be significantly more sceptical of a story originating in National Enquirer than one in the Washington Post.

Bloggers similarly need to build reputations. Or hoodwink unsuspecting browsers.

If the WaPost and Gawker articles had been reporting on the color of the sky or an already-existing blog post by Loehr, they'd have a point. But the facts in question--the quotes by Loehr--were brought into existence by the WaPost reporter by his interviews with her. Without his work to set up, run, and transcribe that interview, Gawker would have nothing. That work created value and should be compensated. Whether copyright is the exact right legal framework is another question. Ultimately the WaPost follow-up column was not a legal argument but an ethical one--what Gawker did does not follow good journalism ethics, if for no other reason than the lack of independent verification of those quotes.

It's not an unusual thing for the AP to remove my byline from stories they pick up from the paper I work at.

I actually had one of my stories make the New York Times earlier this month in the A-section. My name nor the name of my paper appeared on the piece.

Either I'm missing the point or it's just so much a part of the game that nobody really thinks about it any more, but a lot of good writers are being stripped of their work and through channels that make it seem acceptable.

The difference is that the N.Y. Times paid for your story through their subscription to the AP wire service. By paying AP, they ensure that journalists like you will continue to be paid for their work. The contract with AP allows for republication of wire stories without byline attribution. Your agreement to let AP sell your work for republication without attribution is a separate issue. I think it would be better if AP's standard contract called for attribuition to the writers -- giving credit where credit is due. But at least you are being paid for your work and neither AP nor the N.Y. Times is stealing it.

When will people realize how ridiculous it is to own a particular sequence of words? What is the point? You're gonna charge some kid in Tibet learning English who uses a phrase that happens to be in some article you've written? Fuck off.

Whatever happened to being paid to write, as a job? As in if you don't write, you don't get paid? Let the paycheck writers worry about 'originality' or 'stealing' - they'd be the ones in shit for printing (haha, print media cracks me up) anything that is alleged to have been stolen.

This is the digital age. Media proliferates through copying, modification, and redistribution. If your specific arrangement of verbiage is that important to you, don't show it to anybody. And if you need to get paid, well, maybe you should write about something worthwhile?

"So who owns those facts? That's the real question raised by Shapira's complaint, and by the repeated demands by the AP and others to extend legal protection for news stories, whether through expanded copyright protection or reinvigorated unfair competition rules."

This is at best an oversimplification of the truth and at worst outright misdirection. What is at stake is not "who owns the facts" but "who busted their hump to bring those facts to daylight?"

The simple fact (haha) is, it costs money to do what the Post reporters do. From long distance phone calls to airfare (and maybe even still in this day and age bribes) it costs money. When someone uses the research you did and doesn't credit you for it, is that a good thing? In most places, no. When someone directly copies the research you did and doesn't credit for it, as happened in this case, that's usually called plagiarism.

I'd argue that the one single link that Gawker popped in at the bottom of the page isn't really what most people would consider crediting. There was no mention of Shapira's name through the body of the article. There was no mention of the post. There was one link in the first paragraph to the story, which is a nice gesture I suppose. But I don't think that's really proper crediting. Maybe something like "Dan Shapira has an article about crazy lady whatever her name was on the Washington Post . The takeaways?"

There. Suddenly the reader knows who did the work, where it's located, and that this is just a condensation of it.

Let's take your argument a few steps further - medical researchers use facts gathered from patients to do studies and examine the effectiveness of drugs, as well as monitor for long term health problems associated with certain treatments. Those facts could be argued to belong to the patient. Does that mean that every researcher should credit every single patient who took part in a 5000 person, 20 year study?

No. The person who did the research gets the credit for the research done. The person who did the work gets the credit for the work done.

Funny, that. Someone who does actual work gets credit for the work they did.

Of course, medical research is a multi-year process with a huge amount of data to be processed and analyzed over the course of possibly months or even years, and often involves a large team of researchers. A newspaper story like Shapira's takes a few days to hammer out. Completely different, right?

Well, no. They're both effectively the same thing. The differences are, primarily, differences of scale, but that's it. In both cases, research time, research money, thought, and energy went into the production of a finished written work. And it's just flat out wrong to take that work and give nothing back.

Oh, and I personally felt that Shapira's complaints were not so much aimed at just the borrowing of the quotes, but the fact that the Gawker article was just a condensation of his page and a half piece. Nothing new was presented, no new information was released by Gawker. I wouldn't even say that the Gawker article put much of it's own spin on the story. Just a few sarcastic lines and then the quotes that the original author obtained.

Maybe Gawker should be a trailbreaker and actually research (gasp!) it's OWN NEWS STORY. Wow! What a thought! Do intelligent, inventive journalism on the internet! Do their OWN research and put in the quotes that THEY gathered! Whew. That's a brainsmasher right there. I better go lie down before I pass out from shock.

That's always the question. Language belongs to every one.
Single Phrases can't be protected...

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