Online only: updated

Time to re-think the re-write

IT'S TIME to re-think the practice of rewriting stories as instant catch-ups. The issue has been brought to a head by Australian freelance Ginger Gorman, who invoiced the Daily Mail's Australian website after it published rewritten versions of two of her stories, with no perceptible original research. The Mail refused to pay her invoice for AU$2000.

The Mail justified its action by saying "there's no copyright in ideas". This is true, in Australia as it is in the UK.

But is it ethical? And is it harming journalism?

In days of yore, all the London papers would send people to King's Cross station of a night to obtain copies of their rivals' first editions as they went on the train to go oop North. They'd rush them back to the office, where some poor schlub would rewrite the jucier stories in the paper's own style and bung them in the second and subsequent editions.

Arguably, this served journalism as a whole well. Someone who wouldn't read anything less than the Times could still be informed of much of what the Mirror had dug up - and sometimes vice versa.

Now, with all the papers online in one form or another... the practice is equivalent to the distinctly disreputable "spinning". This refers, not to the dark arts of political persuasion, but to parasitic websites that exist purely to rewrite others' work, with a maximum density of search-engine-friendly keywords, to garner slivers of ad revenue by poaching "hits".

The results can be amusing, especially when these parasitic sites use auto-spinning software that simply looks up key words in a thesaurus and bungs in one result at random. But they're not actually informing anyone of anything. And if the Mail is not using such software, it would seem to be a matter of time before it does.

Ginger Gorman now has two choices, as the law stands. She can swallow hard and move on: or she can find a very large wodge of cash to ask a court to rule that the Mail's versions were "substantially similar" to the actual phrasing of her stories.

For copyright to cover facts or ideas remains a terrible idea: think, for starters, about a world in which you needed the permission of the Moloch Corporation to quote from its annual report. But for it not to cover "spinning" is looking increasingly untenable too. How to do that? Ideas on a postcard, please...

First posted 03 Jul 2017

04 Aug 2017

And there's more...

The Press Gazette reports an anonymous informant in a national newspaper's Web operation saying that more than half the graduate trainee intake left for jobs in PR dues to a culture of "ripping" stories from other sites. The Freelance, as a resolute member of the reality-based community, wants to know whether that's higher than the defection rate in the past, with the statistical significance of the finding.

Last month, local news website Rochdale Online won a case against the Manchester Evening News, which had used one of its stories without either payment or attribution. The Press Gazette reports that the MEN defence in Small Claims Court was "there is no copyright in news" and since the article was not copied verbatim there was no breach of copyright. The court disagreed and awarded £200 plus £170 fees.

This was in the same week that the Independent declined to pay an invoice - on the same increasingly shaky grounds - for a court report lifted from Wales Online. The online news outlet had paid Glyn Bellis who was, tellingly, the only journalist in the court in Llandudno.

10 Aug 2017

And now, four months after it lifted the story, the Press Gazette reports that the Independent has agreed to pay Glyn Bellis's invoice for a very modest £40 - while continuing to deny that there is any copyright issue.