News next: a journalism teacher's diary

November 28, 2010

If it’s on the web you can use it, can’t you?

When a student in my Neighborhood News class posted a story on the Hunts Point Express website, I was surprised by the quality of the accompanying photo. Then I looked at the credit. The photographer was one of The New York Times’ best.

“That’s stealing,” I wrote to her. “Photographs are copyrighted, and can’t just be lifted and used.”

She replied: “I thought that that was okay. Ive seen that done before as long as credit was given to the photographer.”

Well, we’ve all heard of people who rob banks or mug old ladies, too, but that doesn’t make theft okay.

Neither does proper attribution of republished content. If plagiarism is robbery, lifting with credit is larceny.

Copyright law permits the “fair use” of others’ intellectual property. Exactly what fair use means is a complex legal issue, but it clearly doesn’t apply to using a photo taken for one publication in another. And it doesn’t apply to reprinting long portions of someone else’s story, even when the quotation is properly attributed.

It’s true that bloggers, including some professionals, reproduce large portions of the work of others, and especially of leading newspapers and magazines. Like the argument over pay walls, the argument over how much quotation is too much is part of the evolution of the web, with its emphasis on linking and dialog.

Most publications have ignored the appropriation of their work, but a backlash has begun. This summer, the Las Vegas Review-Journal began an aggressive campaign of lawsuits against bloggers. In November, the Denver Post warned other Colorado publications to stop lifting portions of its stories, asserting that quoting any more than two paragraphs was a violation of its copyright.

So take your own pictures, and if you want to use what someone else has written in your blog, offer readers a brief summary and a link. That way, you’re taking the interested reader to the place where the story originated, repaying that site with another unique visit and page impression in the all-important readership statistics advertisers rely on.

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