Extreme borrowing in the blogosphere  APR 09 2009

In the past week, both Joshua Schachter and Matt Haughey published articles that were excerpted in the Voices section of All Things Digital, a web site owned by Dow Jones and run by Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg of the WSJ. Each excerpt was accompanied by a link to the original articles. Schachter and Haughey both reacted negatively to All Things Digital's posting of their work. Andy Baio has collected responses from Schachter, Haughey, All Things Digital's Kara Swisher, other writers whose stuff has been excerpted in the Voices section, and a couple other long-time online writers. Merlin Mann's comment on Twitter sums up what the independent writers seem to be irritated with:

Republishing online work without consent and wrapping it in ads is often called "feed scraping." At AllThingsD, it's called "a compliment."

It does suck that ATD's linking technique makes it appear as though Schachter and Haughey are in the employ of Dow Jones and that DJ has the copyright on what they wrote. ATD should make the lack of affiliation more clear. Other than that, is the ATD post really that bad? In many ways, All Things Digital's linking technique is more respectful of the author of the original piece than that of a typical contemporary blog. For comparison purposes, here are screenshots of Schachter's original article as linked to from a typical blog (in this case, Boing Boing) and by All Things Digital.

Attribution on Boing Boing vs All Things Digital

Go read both posts (ATD, BB) and then come back. With its short excerpt and explicit authorship (i.e. there's no doubt that Joshua Schachter wrote those words), the ATD post is clearly just an enticement for the reader to go read the original post. On the other hand, BB's post summarizes most of Schachter's argument and includes an extensive excerpt of the juiciest part of the original piece. The post is clearly marked as being "posted by Cory Doctorow" so a less-than-careful reader might assume that those are Doctorow's thoughts about URL shorteners.

[Metaphorically speaking, the ATD post is like showing the first 3 minutes of a movie and then prodding the viewer to go see the rest of it in a theater while BB's post is like the movie trailer that gives so much of the story away (including the ending) that you don't really need to watch the actual movie.]

What ends up happening is that blogs like Boing Boing -- and I'm very much not picking on BB here...this is a very common and accepted practice in the blogosphere -- provide so much of the gist and actual text of the thing they're pointing to that readers often don't end up clicking through to the original. To make matters worse, some readers will pass along BB's post instead of Schachter's post...it becomes, "hey, did you see what Boing Boing said about URL shortening services?" And occassionally (but more often than you might think) someone will write a post about something interesting, it'll get linked by a big blog that summarizes and excerpts extensively, and then the big blog's post will appear on the front page of Digg and generally get linked around a lot while the original post and its author get screwed.

So I guess my question is: why is All Things Digital getting put through the wringer receiving scrutiny here for something that seems a lot more innocuous than what thousands of blogs are doing every day? Shouldn't we be just as or more critical of sites like Huffington Post, Gawker, Apartment Therapy, Engadget, Boing Boing, Buzzfeed, Lifehacker, etc. etc. etc. that extensively excerpt and summarize?

Update: I'm pulling a couple of quotes up from the comments so that the opinions of the people involved aren't misrepresented.

Joshua Schachter:

I really just objected to the byline on the ATD thing. It made it appear that there was a relationship when there wasn't. If there is curation, the curator should be the one noted as making the choices.

Andy Baio:

All the complaints stem from the affiliation issue. Running ads and having comments on an excerpt are only an issue if it's presented as original content, instead of curation. Put an editor's name on there, remove the author photos, throw it in a blockquote, and all these complaints go away.

Read more posts on kottke.org about:
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There are 36 reader comments

smncameron45 09 200911:45AM

While your general point stands, AllThingsD originally had a 5 paragraph excerpt of the URL Shortener article. It was only after the interview that they cut it down to its current size.

Andy Baio54 09 200911:54AM

"ATD should make the lack of affiliation more clear. Other than that, is the ATD post really that bad?" Well, no. That was the primary criticism. If they changed the presentation, and continue to use short excerpts, there's no issue at all. I tried to be very clear that their articles are intended to send traffic, unlike sites that do extreme borrowing and summarizing, like the ones you mention.

smncameron: The original excerpt was two paragraphs long, not five.

Joshua Schachter55 09 200911:55AM

I really just objected to the byline on the ATD thing. It made it appear that there was a relationship when there wasn't. If there is curation, the curator should be the one noted as making the choices.

Truth be told, neither sent more than dozens of hits of traffic.

jkottke58 09 200911:58AM

Was it five paragraphs? Here's the screenshot that Waxy had of the ATD post before and after. Even so, the "before" excerpt is about the same size or even a bit smaller than the excerpt BB took...and excludes the extensive summary provided by BB. Besides, it seems to me from Andy's post that the size of the excerpt is not the main objection to the ATD post.

martin00 09 200912:00PM

Article, or just link on ATD is okay, is short. But on BB is almost all from the original post, and there is ads, all money from ads take BB. So, Schachter haven't got anything and BoingBoing's got all.

Andy Baio08 09 200912:08PM

I can't speak for everyone else, but I'd rather be summarized and linked Boing Boing-style, than to have someone quote me without context/description and present it in a way that implies I wrote it for their site. Jason, you really prefer ATD's link style over Boing Boing's?

jkottke11 09 200912:11PM

If they changed the presentation, and continue to use short excerpts, there's no issue at all.

But per your article, Merlin and Matt seem to be irritated by lots of other things about the ATD post.

This is weird, apparently the Wall Street Journal's All Things D does a reblogging thing," he wrote on his sideblog. "I sure wish they asked me first though. That's a hell of a lot of ads on my 'excerpt.'" Matt also pointed out the existence of comments makes things problematic. "If they're just trying to drive traffic to articles, why have comments on excerpts? That makes no sense to me."

Joshua wrote:

Truth be told, neither sent more than dozens of hits of traffic.

This is one of those dirty little secrets of the blogosphere...the big blogs that extensively summarize/excerpt don't drive that much traffic. I bet Gruber's link drove more traffic than BB's even though DF probably gets less traffic than BB.

Jeff Milner12 09 200912:12PM

I can't believe that you think the clearly marked blockquote section on Boing Boing is remotely confusing, even to the "less-than-careful reader".

Thom Wong13 09 200912:13PM

Not that this is your thing, but this is happening so much in style blogs that they essentially read as aggregators. People will copy the original post in its entirety (sometimes clearly using cut and paste so picture links are rendered as html...with no correction), slapping a "via" in brackets at the end in a nod to attribution.

I wonder if this doesn't simply come down to which site you like better, or on which site (BB) it's cooler to appear.

SpaceMonkeyX20 09 200912:20PM

The irony here, of course, is that Boing Boing is going to read this post, will summarize it with a link to the original, but no one will come here.

Andy Baio20 09 200912:20PM

Jason: All the complaints stem from the affiliation issue. Running ads and having comments on an excerpt are only an issue if it's presented as original content, instead of curation. Put an editor's name on there, remove the author photos, throw it in a blockquote, and all these complaints go away.

Matt Haughey31 09 200912:31PM

There is a larger more interesting issue about how much a blog takes an idea and presents as their own. My main beef with Apartment Therapy vs. the NYT was that AP took too much and it wasn't fair to them.

There's no hard and fast rule and it's a huge gray area, but it'd be interesting to figure out some limits of where bloggers should draw the line.

Benny35 09 200912:35PM

So I guess my question is: why is All Things Digital receiving scrutiny here for something that seems a lot less innocuous than what thousands of blogs are doing every day

On a sorta sidenote, I find this confusing. Did you mean a lot MORE innocuous?

Mr. Messrs38 09 200912:38PM

A regular reader of Boingboing or D will immediately know the local conventions and understand precisely what each is doing. But an occasional visitor to either site -- or many others, for that matter -- might be confused since everyone does it a little differently. Messrs. Schachter and Haughey are sophisticated webdudes and probably understand that. (Do you like the use of "Messrs." back there?) So I'm confused by their anger. Is it the ads? Is it the "old/new media" Dow-Jones-blog-vs.-bloggers'-blog thing? Is it a legitimate abuse on D's part, and by extension zillions of other blogs?

For the sake of stating my pet theory: I suspect the old/new media thing is at least one 800-pound gorilla in this room.

Sam Hastings40 09 200912:40PM

ATD's posting style and format, for me, definitely indicates some kind of affiliation between their site and the blog being linked to. As someone who has never visited this site before I'd assume that Joshua has given permission for part of his post to be reproduced. BB clearly marks the excerpt as a quote which I think most people would reasonably assume is from an external, non-affiliated source. Summarising and paraphrasing the entirety of the post reduces the effort required for lazy users to garner a basic insight into the opinion being put forward, and invites people who are interested to find out more to read on. ATD, it seems, are definitely trying to pass off the content as either their own work or the work of someone associated in some way with them.

Philip Dhingra44 09 200912:44PM

It doesn't have to be an either-or scenario. BB's treatment has bad aspects to it, but unfortunately, it's too commonplace to get upset about it. Maybe it shouldn't be an accepted practice for sites like BB to, as you say, give the movie spoiler treatment to an article.

HuffingtonPost seems to do this aggressively, but they seem to do it to corporate writers, who, according to Andy Baio, don't seem to mind re-blogging as much as self-publishers do.

I sense a contrarian tint in this post. Is it because these self-publishing web 2.0 types sound like hypocrites given their own extensive excerpting of other people's material? I follow-through to original articles, after reading a DF excerpt, one in ten times. Although, I doubt he gets many (if any) complaints or accusations of mischevious re-blogging.

I was once the bad guy, like AllThingsDigital, in this situation. I lifted comments from MetaFilter and inserted them into an art project. The community, at least as represented in MetaTalk, was really upset about that. This surprised me, since I felt that the community was always yelling when the corporate powers try to crack down on copying. I took down the text and just did straight links, just to appease the community.

Steve McFarland48 09 200912:48PM

Yours is the only site I read that does blockquotes with commentary in the way you're picking on BoingBoing here. I love it, but I'm interested to hear you articulate how the practice you cite from BB is different from your own, and why. Is it just a matter of the scale of the excerpt? That would seem pretty fuzzy.

Azrael Brown54 09 200912:54PM

Just a couple days ago, Boing Boing linked to a picture, that Matt Haughey linked to, that ModCult downloaded and copied to their site, from my website. ModCult was the only place to bother to link to me as the source of the image -- and note that Matt Haughey linked to the Waxy article on the problem of content-copying right after he linked to a sub-page at ModCult which doesn't link to the source. Now, me scanning something from a book and calling it My Cool Thing is a bit disengenuous compared to putting effort into writing something myself, but the taking and recycling of others content standard practice on the internet -- half of the things in my Google Reader are repeats of each other's content, linking to the same blog that took their content from somebody else, who did the same thing to the somebody that originally produced the content. I don't like it, but I'm not sure what can be done to prevent or control it, given the looseness of how things work online; I just try not to get too worked up about it, and move on to the next My Cool Thing.

Catherine Winters57 09 200912:57PM

Cory's excerpt is pretty long, and I really don't doubt the traffic it drove to your site, Joshua. I know I'm certainly guilty of summary-skimming on a lot of blogs I read. I'd be interested to compare BoingBoing to an "it's not really a blog" site like FARK or Slashdot. They aggregate, but still have extremely short summaries and, I suspect, a greater linkthrough ratio. Then again, driving traffic isn't necessarily the point of what BoingBoing does.

Regardless of whether or not there's a better or fairer way, BoingBoing's linking policies are pretty standard, and frankly, do comply with copyright, attribution, etc, etc. All Things Digital, on the other hand... wow. That byline and photo are really deceptive. If they'd done that to me, I'd be pretty sour about it.

Mike20 09 2009 1:20PM

I think one of the biggest ironies here is that Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive of News Corp, which owns Dow Jones, which owns the WSJ, which owns All Things Digital, recently complained about Google and other news aggregators stealing copyrights:

"Should we be allowing Google to steal our copyrights? If you have a brand like the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, you don't have to."

Not only that, but Robert Thompson, the managing editor of the WSJ went even further:

"There is a collective consciousness among content creators that they are bearing the costs and that others are reaping some of the revenues - inevitably that profound contradiction will be a catalyst for action, and the moment is nigh," he said.

"There is no doubt that certain websites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet.... a significant proportion of their users don't necessarily associate that content with the creator".

"Therefore revenue that should be associated with the creator is not garnered."

JayCruz21 09 2009 1:21PM

For me this discussion all boils down to this question: Isn't all "link curating" borrowing content? My answer is yes. No matter how you do it, your using other content to present yourself/your site. I don't see anything wrong with that. That's the internet. But everyone is going to have an opinion about how to do it properly.

Jed27 09 2009 1:27PM

Additionally, feed readers scrape full content, strip out ads and republish people's work. Why aren't we concerned about regular readers viewing in Google Reader and never visiting our sites?

jkottke33 09 2009 1:33PM

Did you mean a lot MORE innocuous?

I did, thanks for catching that.

Yours is the only site I read that does blockquotes with commentary in the way you're picking on BoingBoing here. I love it, but I'm interested to hear you articulate how the practice you cite from BB is different from your own, and why. Is it just a matter of the scale of the excerpt? That would seem pretty fuzzy.

Let me note again that I am not picking on Boing Boing here. kottke.org is sometimes guilty of the same practice, although I have been trying harder recently to avoid doing it.

Whether a site has borrowed too much is a matter of degree and, like pornography, is one of those "know it when you see it" sort of things. John Gruber does the blockquotes with commentary thing and does an excellent job of enticing his readers to visit the links he posts without giving too much away.

Andrew Simone33 09 2009 1:33PM

Jason, you are spot on. The issue as I have been reading it across the web is--and has always been--a question of the "less-than-careful reader." Anybody worth his/her salt who has spent time around the web is aware that most readers are already more than less-than-careful.

The affiliation issue, by my reckoning, should be filed under the reader response issue. The substantive question: "Is the website intentionally obscuring or mining the most useful content to capitalize on the less-than-careful reader?"

That is the reason, Jed, we are less concerned about Google Reader.

Mr. Messrs56 09 2009 1:56PM

xxx I think one of the biggest ironies here is that Rupert Murdoch ... xxx

This observation ties directly my suspicion of a "new media/old media" aspect to the criticism of ATD.

I don't think Murdoch or Thomson are talking about Boingboing or Kottke-style excerpting, but at a much broader problem, namely, that the WSJ employs hundreds of expensive journos all over the world producing expensive and original intellectual content -- in other words, "breaking news or looking for stories not yet reported elsewhere" -- and they need to find a way to make sure a sufficient amount of ad revenue flows back to the WSJ to pay for that enterprise. Otherwise, the WSJ will have to fire those reporters. Seen from their perspective, their worries are extremely legitimate: The worry amounts to "can we find a way to make sure the WSJ survives."

To have this conversation, you have to be willing to set aside some of the attendant "I hate Rupert/News Corp." sentiments that inevitably creep in. This isn't just about the WSJ, it's about the New Yorker, and [insert name your favorite rag here]. You also have to be willing to acknowledge that these issues aren't black-and-white -- that there needs to be a middle ground between providing access to original intellectual content (duh, that's what newspapers have always done) while also making enough money to keep yourself in business. (again, duh.)

Google-worship (another too-easy tendency in some of these conversations) is fascile and unsophisticated. Think of it this way: You're a news provider. Google is essentially becoming a distributor of your main product. Valuable benefits accrue back to you because of Google's reach and technical sophistication, but at the same time, what sensible businessperson wants to put control of distribution in the hands of someone else? Profoundly difficult question. Discuss.

jkottke30 09 2009 2:30PM

This tweet is a pretty good example of what I'm trying to get at here.

http://tr.im is down, preventing me from retrieving links. @kottkedotorg http://bit.ly/4x6XUy and @doctorow http://bit.ly/jKolA were right

Shouldn't that be "@joshu was right"?

Anil38 09 2009 2:38PM

Jason, I think part of your take on this is based on your philosophy of blogging. I'm pretty sure the only time I've heard you mention it publicly is roughly at 4:20 in this clip, where you say you don't intend to steer people in a certain direction, you just want to impart them with enough information to let them make their own minds up.

BoingBoing is, among many other things, a platform for unambiguous advocacy. I think you find the neutral aspect of ATD's "here's a bit of what this person said, go explore the rest on your own" appealing because it's similar to the style (and lack of judgmental mindset) that you try to exhibit yourself.

But I think ATD is off-putting in its appropriation oftentimes because their neutrality about the content isn't an editorial decision as yours is &mdash it's probably just laziness because that's what the tools afford.

BoingBoing isn't going to shy away from what are, for lack of a better term, "spoilers" about the articles it links to. They are happy to send traffic out, but mostly they have a narrative they want to construct and the Wonderful Things on the rest of the web are the raw materials for it. Conversely, ATD probably both legitimately wants to send people to these other sites (as you do), but also realizes that they can get ranked and linked for those articles with more regularity than the original authors often can.

And as I'm sure you know, HuffPo's probably been dinged for this more than anyone. The more egregious examples that HuffPo's been criticized for were, in my mind, just times when they took this mechanical excerpting that ATD does to its logical extreme. You're right that it's arbitrary we pick one side over the other (which is essentially what I was trying to say when pointing out that our friends are making the same fundamental complaint that Rupert Murdoch is), but you're probably being too generous to sites like ATD because their technique is superficially similar to your own work.

In short, you have a distinct view of how you link to things, not just what you link to. Most corporate publishers aren't so considered about the medium, though I wish they were as thoughtful as you about how they link.

Joshua Schachter00 09 2009 3:00PM

@Messrs: Really, I just didn't like seeing my name as a byline in a place I didn't write for.

Mr. Messrs26 09 2009 3:26PM

@Schachter: Interesting... in one respect ATD's 'byline' thing gives the originator (you) more up-front recognition than the BB way (BB person atop; link tucked away somewhere). I do think anyone who reads ATD or BB for that matter quickly figures out the local ecosystem. But point taken, no doubt that it's not crystal clear.

Jay Fienberg53 09 2009 3:53PM

This is a meta point, and just a small one: but it's good to see a discussion that is talking about BB and ATD as fundamentally commercial sites.

BB once was a personal blog, that was non-commercial. And, it gradually evolved into its current form. IMHO, part of their current success is in their hybridization of personal blog practices and flagrant commercialism. ATD can maybe be described as evolving more from flagrant commercialism towards personal blogging. But, ATD's hybridization is obviously missing some of the nuances of "the right way to blog," particularly in their design and communication about who said what, when and where on the web.

One 400lbs gorilla is the room is motive. For any site that makes its owner(s) money, the default judgement about their motives needs to be something like: they're doing what they're doing more our of need for profit, than for fun or altruistic reasons. If they want it to be the other way around, they probably have to very publicly work "twice as hard" to get those fun or altruistic features outweighing the commercial ones in the site design (on every level).

Mike Wad01 09 2009 4:01PM

I don't know quite how you compare the two problems being somewhat conflated here: (1) length of excerpt, and (2) attribution of excerpt. They are related but different issues and I don't know that one's worse than the other. The running of ads is a third issue, but all get at the basic issue of respect for the creators and providers of original content. BB, and sites like it, often add commentary to excerpts or photos, and the question is the degree to which this is "value-added." This is related to the standard complaint of newspapers about blogs: "without us, you wouldn't exist." Partly true, but without paper, newspapers wouldn't exist. It's obviously a big gray area, and I think we can all agree that proper attribution is best, and respectfully short excerpts are best.

You'd think there'd be a sort of "best practices" guidance out there for this sort of thing. Sort of like The Bro Code for blogs. Or maybe there is and I just skimmed the BB post.

Gigi Allen32 09 2009 9:32PM

So let me get this straight. Two of the WSJ's marquee tech writers find Schachter's post on URL shorteners interesting. They take a brief excerpt from it and give it primo placement on the FRONT PAGE of their site as well as their Voices section. They include a direct link to the post as well as a prominent ALL CAPS byline. And they even go to the trouble of seeking out a mug shot of the author to feature alongside the post. In the process, they expose Schacter, his writing and his ideas to an audience to which he most likely had never before been exposed. And they arguably do so to their own detriment (A list of popular Mossberg reviews in their left-hand rail would probably generate a shit-load more traffic for them then these brief excerpts and outbound links).

And you folks are complaining? As best I can tell, Swisher and Mossberg are not only doing their best to be fair and respectful, they're trying to bring their audience to the broader blogging community. Call me crazy. But I think they're being generous.

As Andy and others have noted above, if you take issue with ATD, you ought to be taking issue with BB and a host of other sites that actually are taking far greater liberties with your content.

Curious. Did any of the offended writers actually e-mail ATD and ask that their work be removed? My guess is no. Which makes this all even more silly.

Ajit41 09 200911:41PM

Jason. Thankful you are dealing with this head on. Gruber and you are most effective to getting me to discover new stuff online.

Joe Clark21 10 2009 1:21AM

I’m not clear on why you adamantly refuse to “pick on” the blog that, according to the logic of this post, is committing the worst crime. I suspect you’re playing favourites.

JayCruz12 11 2009 1:12PM

I'm going to take the liberty and drop this link of Warren Ellis on Link Curation and Post Curation http://www.warrenellis.com/?p=6068 I think it's relevant for this discussion.

jkottke52 12 2009 1:52PM

Joe: that particular BB post was a good example because it could be compared directly to one of the ATD posts in question. I could easily have pulled something from one of the hundreds or even thousands of other blogs which do the same thing but the comparison wouldn't have worked as well.

As always, thanks from all of us for your constant vigilance on over-chumminess in the blogosphere. FWIW, I haven't read BB in more than a year.

This thread is closed to new comments. Thanks to everyone who responded.

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