King, from May 2013 to July 2014 worked as a freelance writer for MailOnline, the online wing of the UK tabloid The Daily Mail.Though King says he was offered a position on the full-time staff, he declined because he didn’t want to have his name affixed to his writing.
That writing, according to King, primarily involved rewriting posts and stories from other sites. Furthermore, King claimed that MailOnline, which is now simply known as DailyMail.com, had rules forcing attribution to be placed lower down in a story (if it’s provided at all) and that the editors knowingly published false or misleading information/headlines.
MailOnline, in a response to King, took issue with his account and disputed many of his anecdotes as either being false or incomplete. King himself also responded, disputing many of the points MailOnline made in its rebuttal.
According to the complaint, King first approached the Washington Post about publishing the piece but the Post, after hearing back from MailOnline, decided against it. The lawsuit goes on to allege that King and Gawker knowingly published defamatory statements with malice, causing them to file the suit and seek unspecified damages.
Though MailOnline claims that its business model is not based on plagiarism and that it trains its writers to provide appropriate attribution at all times, this isn’t the publication’s first scrape with plagiarism allegations.
While the ethics of MailOnline and its practices are up for debate, there’s no disputing that its practices are becoming more common. The site makes heavy use of other publications’ work in their reporting, a process often referred to as aggregation and it’s being practiced by more and more sites.
However, the rules for rewriting and citing aggregated content are not as clear as other journalistic norms. That’s not because it’s a new practice, but because, for the better part of a century, it was illegal.
That lawsuit created a new kind of intellectual property tort known as “hot news misappropriation”. Though normally facts can’t be copyrighted, just their expression, hot news granted a limited right to control and report on facts that were gathered at expense.
However, in 1976 the “hot news” ruling was largely preempted by the passage of a new copyright act. Still, the journalistic standards stuck and such appropriation remained highly frowned upon, which it still is today by many, if not most, in the field.
But as blogs and smaller news sites began to engage in aggregation, the behavior began to trickle up to larger ones, even though the norms about when aggregation is appropriate and how to cite reused content correctly are still being developed.
What is clear with MailOnline and this lawsuit is that the practice of aggregation is not going anywhere. Not only has MailOnline become an extremely popular news site, reaching hundreds of millions of visitors per month, but it and the practice of aggregation are growing.
The trick is going to be finding a way to make the relationship between aggregator and original author a symbiotic one rather than a parasitic one. If no one is doing original reporting, then the aggregators will have nowhere to pull from.
So while MailOnline defends itself and its reputation in court, a separate discussion is needed about the practice of aggregation and how to do it ethically.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.