The Ethics of Rehosting and Cross-Posting Content

Posted by Jonathan Bailey on Feb 23, 2016 11:56:03 AM

There is little doubt that Yahoo has been struggling lately. Recently having revealed that the company is for sale, the move comes just days after a round of layoffs that saw it exit much of its content creation markets, including several digital magazines.
However, one thing that the company didn’t need during these difficult times is a plagiarism scandal, in particular a scandal in one of the few areas it’s still investing in. But that is exactly what happened when Brietbart reported on such a story in the company’s fledgling eSports coverage.

The story began with an article on the League of Legends team DetonatioN originally posted to Red Bull’s eSports site. Someone at Yahoo copied the entire 1,900 word article, minus the images, and posted it directly on their site.

But while Brietbart is quick to call the story a plagiarism, the Yahoo version did both attribute the original author, Cameron Gilbert, and link to the original source at the footer. For many, however, this is far from adequate attribution for copying and pasting nearly 1,900 words verbatim.

Yahoo, for its part, has pulled down the story but the incident has re-sparked a seemingly endless debate about rehosting content.

Recently the debate has focused heavily on videos, with YouTubers complaining that users on Facebook are rehosting videos they upload and having them go viral, an act they call freebooting. However, nearly every type of content has been impacted.

Articles, however, are especially interesting. For much of the Web’s history, cross-posting articles, with permission, was seen as a great way to expand the reach of a well-written piece of content and sites would often form alliances or exchanges to cross post each other’s work.

While this practice is still common in certain circles, concerns about search engine optimization, in particular Google preferring copies of the post over the original, has made it less preferable. Instead, most sites prefer the use of a summary, typically the first paragraph, with a prominent link.

To that end, WordPress, the software that runs some 25% of the world’s Web sites, introduced a new format for embedding posts late last year in a bid to make embedding a post akin to embedding a YouTube video. While this new standard hasn’t fully caught on, it shows how in flux the standards for content rehosting is when it comes to text.

With that in mind, the Yahoo story is even more interesting.

From a legal standpoint, there’s not much doubt: If Yahoo didn’t have permission to rehost the content, it was committing copyright infringement. However, even if it did have permission, the ethics of how it provided attribution are dubious at best.

While the author’s name was prominent and link was provided, there was no clear indication at the top that the article was not original and no one would find out as such until after they had reached the bottom.

For Red Bull, this link does almost no good. Almost no one is going to visit the source after they’ve read the full work. Yahoo, despite its troubles, is still a very large, prominent and well-trafficked site. It is known for original content creation and every reader likely would assume that Gilbert was writing for them, not Red Bull.

In short, even if it was done with permission and even if it wasn’t plagiarism in the strictest sense of the word, the attribution is wholly inadequate for Red Bull to see any benefit from the use.

So while WordPress’ standards haven’t taken off, it’s clear that Yahoo’s kind of use is not acceptable either. When it comes to rehosting and cross-posting article, the ethical and attribution standards are still shifting and are being guided by a mix of social and legal norms.

Unfortunately, the Internet isn’t like works of academia, with relatively rigid attribution standards that apply almost universally. That’s going to make some of even the most basic content reuse complicated and cause battles as people with differing opinions clash.

Sadly, there’s precious little that can change that, other than waiting for the ethical and legal standards to become more settled.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author, Jonathan Bailey of Plagiarism Today, and do not reflect the opinions of iThenticate.