April 2, 2003 12:15 AM   Subscribe

Trouble in Blogistan has begun as stratfor has accused the owner of the agonist of plagiarism of news blurbs. This thread is his response along with comments by his readers. While Sean Paul seems to have done his best at sourcing on the fly, I am curious how my fellow mefiers feel about it. Are short news reports copyright protected? Could legal action truly result? How will this affect future blog projects?
posted by SweetIceT (23 comments total)
Please be kind my first FPP.
posted by SweetIceT at 12:21 AM on April 2, 2003

I really do wish I could cite all the sources here. If you're upset about it as some people are, please understand the time constraints I am under. Please also note that some of the updates are copied and pasted others are not. Just consider it all from another news source unless I say otherwise.

What a chimp. You're a blogger. You're not under any time constraints. Real reporters under actual deadlines have time to cite their sources. It's what makes them reporters and this guy a poser chimp.

Welcome to the embarrassing underbelly of blogistan. "I'm too busy to bother crediting the people who provide my entire reason for existing!" Way to prove all the smug columnists right.
posted by rusty at 12:24 AM on April 2, 2003

Is this strafor something I need an agonist to know about?
posted by WolfDaddy at 12:26 AM on April 2, 2003

Just to expand and clarify on my first comment a little: It seems like The Agonist provides a fine service and all, and it looks as though everything above the lame apology is sourced, either by link or attribution. I have no inherent problem with what the Agonist does, I just think that citing your sources is not optional, even if you're under terrible crushing imaginary time pressure.
posted by rusty at 12:32 AM on April 2, 2003

I really do wish I could cite all the sources here. If you're upset about it as some people are, please understand the time constraints I am under.

The poor, dumb bastard. He's nailed. He's taken pay-for-play content (the basic sub is $119.95 per year, premium $619.00) and zapped it into the public domain without attribution — a welcome service, by the way, for why shouldn't we all have access to the current whereabouts of the 7th Cavalry? — along with the incredible way that he's rallied his readers in a full-on assault on mainstream media. But yes, there's a little 'c' with a circle around it in the colophon of stratfor's site, and I am sure they have a user's agreement as well. Sean-Paul hasn't even got a Creative Commons license on his. He's too busy tuning into the zeitgeist. I honestly admire that kind of idiocy. I'm prone to it myself sometimes, which is why I don't answer my phone in the afternoon anymore. Collections agencies.

Hopefully he'll get off by ceasing and desisting on the stratfor material and still have a useful role to play. I think I'd probably get a little dizzy myself if my hits started running into the millions.
posted by hairyeyeball at 12:56 AM on April 2, 2003

For what it is worth, I started reading Stratfor's free reports during Operation Enduring Freedom (the 2002 Afghanistan war).

Their analysis was consistently wrong, and looked like it was written by someone whose only military knowledge came out of a Tom Clancy book (circa The Bear and The Dragon, definitely not Red Storm Rising era). Maybe Stratfor purposefully only gave away the low quality stuff for free, and I stopped reading it over a year ago, so I can't really comment on the current quality.

As for The Agonist, I have enjoyed reading it, and Mr. Kelley definitely puts a lot of his time into it. But let's be honest, he stole Stratfor's content plain and simple. It is no different than a schoolchild cribbing a report out of the encyclopedia. Not crediting them is bad, but the verbatim copying is inexcusable.

The really sad part is that Sean Kelly really does seem to putting the vast majority of his life into his blog, and is obviously loving the attention he has received for it. I have even seen him writing about how he wants to make it a full time job, seemingly oblivious to the fact that as soon as the war is over, his readership will all dry up and disappear.
posted by Schnauzer at 3:04 AM on April 2, 2003

Are short news reports copyright protected?
I think I have to say, yes, anything out there created after April 1, 1989 is copyright protected, and crediting the source [either by link or attribute] is a fair way to cover your own ass. Plus it's a nice gesture!
posted by dabitch at 3:12 AM on April 2, 2003

I like a number of places that charge but feel I can not afford them. Most have ananlysis in addition to bits of news. Agonist, free, has lots of up-to-minute news and is like ticker across screen on TV (cable), which too seldom sources anything. So: for fast and changing news, Agonist just fine for me.
posted by Postroad at 3:42 AM on April 2, 2003

SweetIceT: Good first FPP...timely, debatable, and "web-worthy." Thanks.

And FWIW: Sean-Paul should have credited StratFor; a very simple gesture could have prevented all of this hullaballoo. Having said that, I'm a little put off by the venom over at StratFor.
posted by davidmsc at 5:29 AM on April 2, 2003

The case could be made, and is by Sean-Paul, that he is simply reporting the news and aggregating various sources. This isn't particularly uncommon with weblogs and many of us (myself included) would be dead in the water without Yahoo news, Boing Boing and Romanesko.

Where S-P has gone wrong is posting content from other sites verbatim and without attribution. There's only so much news available out there and there is bound to be some overlap, however if one has the time to read another site, and then copy and paste the content I would imagine that the extra thirty seconds it takes to attribute the source and/or paraphrase the information wouldn't be too much to ask. Look at the frequency of Sean-Pauls posting, the argument that he doesn't have time fails when the amount of time he spends blogging is considered.

What I find most disturbing is the fervor the supporters of the sites brought to the comments threads. WTF did these people do before there was a war? I had to stop reading weblogs for a bit, lest I give in to the impulse to rip my eyballs out with each self important webloggers willingness to, "Stay up as long as it takes to bring you the latest in war news." If want 'all war, all the time' I'm fully capable of adding a few feeds to my aggregattor... maybe even some where the information is parsed and commented on by a 23 year old web developer. I'm sorry, but living in NY on 9/11 or being beat up by some Islamic kid in sixth grade does not make one an expert on foreign policy or international law.
posted by cedar at 5:39 AM on April 2, 2003

Yes, short news reports are copyright. No, lack of time is not an excuse for blatant plagiarism. And gee, maybe having a business model that allows them to pay contributors is why stratfor is worth stealing in the first place?
posted by kewms at 5:57 AM on April 2, 2003

personally, I'm intrigued by the fact that it's Stratfor that's making the most noise about this since, imho, the Agonist is essentially a one-man knockoff of Stratfor's business model. Collate information from a diverse array of news sources, encourage input from Internet "stringers" who might give you some inside info, and then post it on the Internet for widespread, low-cost distribution. If anything, it seems like Stratfor really is just nothing more than a company of bloggers -- just bloggers with KGB and Jane's Defense Weekly pedigrees. The main difference between the two sites and is that Stratfor adds on their own analysis and Agonist just posts the news and rumors and lets readers come to their own conclusion.
posted by bl1nk at 6:51 AM on April 2, 2003

Wow, that's ugly... I was completely clueless. I knew something was going on last night because the site was vitrually overwhelmed with traffic. At first glance I thought this was a matter of attribution. Which, of course, we've discussed at length. If I remember, it was determined that it was the right thing to do but, not the law of the land. Now, I realize that there really isn't much to discuss. It was copyrighted, paid access content (no matter what the quality is) that he did not have authority to reproduce. He has indeed exposed himself to considerable liability.

I'm saddened indeed... I really thought that The Agonist was going to be the vanguard that pushed news blogging over the top and give many of us new hope. Instead, I fear that this is an enormous setback. Especially when the blog-savvy media pundits are turned on to this.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 7:02 AM on April 2, 2003

stratfor has accused the owner of the agonist of plagiarism

Is there any official comment from Stratfor? This link goes to Strategic Armchair Command, which looks like just another weblog to me, not an official Stratfor site.

Anyway, about a third of the examples they site look like acceptable paraphrases to me, and the rest are copy-and-paste plagarism. In a short-form reporting of facts, though, it's difficult to paraphrase because there are only so many ways to say things.

Finally, he's clearly violating Stratfor's terms of use:
...access to Stratfor content, services or tools, and other premium intelligence is for the Subscriber ONLY and may not be shared...By purchasing the Individual Subscription, you agree not to reproduce, retransmit, photocopy, distribute, disseminate, sell, publish, broadcast, or circulate the information received through the Service to anyone without the express prior written consent of Stratfor...Copying and distributing original copyright-protected intelligence from the site is expressly forbidden.
posted by kirkaracha at 7:19 AM on April 2, 2003

If you ever spend any time summarizing news, you know some overlap of word choice and phrasing is inescapable; there are only so many different ways you can relate certain basic types of information. But this kind of overlap looks pretty damning. And while the news itself -- the information -- isn't copyrighted, the words used to describe it are. Even if the Agonist had provided the source, this would still seem to be a violation of Stratfor's copyright, to the extent that its posts aren't being excerpted so much as republished.

This is just a basic no-no, and it's the responsibility of every publisher, no matter how small, to know about it.
posted by mattpfeff at 8:48 AM on April 2, 2003

Hm. I just looked at Sean-Paul's biography on the site. Based upon his educational background and work history, I'd say that he should have known better than to not cite his sources.

Has there been an offical comment from Stratfor yet?

Also, I'm finding the blind support of his readers in the comment thread cited more than a little frightening. Not to mention the fact that most of them seem to think that copyright doesn't matter.
posted by eilatan at 9:19 AM on April 2, 2003

FWIW, I don't think Sean Peal realized in the beginning how popular his blog was going to become. I believe I read that he was to achieve a million hits sometime today. However, I am not convinced that Sean Paul was actually lifting the paid for info, as opposed to that which was freely available at the site. I do not have a subscription to that site so I have no way of knowing that for certain. The site began as an aggregation or compilation of news from many many sources. How does the fact that the Agonist does not charge for its services affect the situation if he is not using subscripted news services as his source? Would posting a disclaimer that he himself is not actually writing any of the material help the situation?

Even before this controversy came to pass Sean Paul had begun citing his sources more and more often. I have watched this blog go from just another unknown personal blog to a real blip on the radar screen in just under 2 weeks. That's pretty fast even in Web time. It has been amazing to watch the number of transformations and adjustments to user response the site has had to take in such a short time.

I believe Sean Paul has taken his rap on the knuckles, and has adjusted accordingly. He has apparently stumbled onto a UI that his loyal followers enjoy and at least in my eyes it is heartening to see that there are yet to be discovered opportunities for those in the Internet business. I do not know what the future holds for the site, but I secretly have my fingers crossed that he finds a way to succeed. I hope that Stratfor does not force him out of business as the Web world could use a shot in the arm in these troubling times.
posted by SweetIceT at 9:28 AM on April 2, 2003

crediting the source [either by link or attribute] is a fair way to cover your own ass.

Not really. If you credit the source, you're as much as admitting that you copied the material. In a court, this would probably be evidence against you, not for you, assuming the copyright owner cared enough to sue.
posted by kindall at 11:48 AM on April 2, 2003

stratfor is an incredible resource -- i used to read it when it was free and their predictions were frequently accurate and way ahead of most other media. definitely the best of "open source intelligence". now i don't read it cos it's pay for play. but i respect their right to maintain their business and don't think it's fair for someone else to plagarize their reports.
posted by jcruelty at 11:57 AM on April 2, 2003

It's important to keep in mind that plagiarism and copyright violation are two separate things. Whether Sean-Paul was guilty of copyright violation is one of those borderline cases--copying only a few sentences would likely be fair use, but copying a few sentences here and a few sentences there, in dozens of different instances, is more likely to be copyright violation. Whether the sentences are attributed to stratfor or not makes no difference in the question of whether there is a copyright violation. (If I copy Stephen King's latest book and place it on the web, without the copyright owner's permission, it's a copyright violation regardless of whether I acknowledge Stephen King as the author or not.)

However, even if the quotes were fair use and thus not a copyright violation, presenting them without attribution is still plagiarism. Fortunately, Sean-Paul seems to have seen the light, and the matter appears to have been resolved peaceably (see the 1:22 EST subentry).
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:11 PM on April 2, 2003

All better, it would seem. I, for one, am very pleased.
posted by Dean_Paxton at 1:53 PM on April 2, 2003

Wired News published an article on this today (quoting Dean Paxton in this thread, too) -- worth the read.
posted by mattpfeff at 10:11 AM on April 7, 2003

It's pretty common to not cite sources on a blog. Is it different when the blog suddenly becomes hugely popular? All the articles about The Agonist created an expectation of journalistic integrity. He also presented himself as having secret sources. When the sources are from a newsletter that people have to pay for, yes that's a problem. But, he had good intentions and this information made his blog better by posting this information. It's not like we were harmed in any way - we benefitted! Only Stratfor really has anything material to lose, and they're being very nice about it. Something more important is lost: trust.

I think it's another valuable lesson for the blog medium. It's not really journalism. At best, it's personal journalism. Which is why it's so wonderful, and also why it's perhaps more fallible. "Real" journalism makes mistakes, too - as witnessed most recently by the L.A. Times photographer fired for altering a photo. The photographer was fired and apologies were made, but trust and credibility were damaged. Where does that leave The Agonist? Right where it should be. Readers who feel betrayed will leave. The remaining loyal readers recognize that Sean-Paul Kelley is only human, humans make mistakes and learn fom them, and move on. And now, back to the news.
posted by Dok Millennium at 2:31 AM on April 8, 2003

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