Aggregation vs. Plagiarism: A Modern Problem Hits an Old Medium

The ongoing debate of aggregation vs. plagiarism is hitting the world of print media with a fascinating new case.

The whole thing started when Jody Rosen over at Slate discovered an article of his reproduced nearly verbatim in a weekly newspaper from Montgomery County, Texas. The Bulletin, he explains, made some minor modifications — but largely just lifted his copy and put it under its own staff member’s byline.

Rosen investigated further and found chunks of content from two other publications within the same story — and it didn’t stop there. Some creative Googling uncovered article after article in the Bulletin matching previously published stories, almost word-for-word.

The ordeal gets more interesting as it goes on. Rosen ended up having a couple of conversations with the publisher, but never got a real answer. The publisher, he says, stopped returning his calls — and now, the Bulletin‘s web site has mysteriously disappeared.

In his engaging, funny, and well-written account, Rosen takes us through his mixed emotions: Could this have been a big joke? Could such a paper — one purporting to have been around since 1969 — actually have built itself on such journalism practices? Or are those practices, Rosen suggests, perhaps not as evil as they seem? Maybe, he suggests, the Bulletin is “bringing guerilla-style 21st-century content aggregation to 20th-century print media.”

The Inquisitr has certainly seen its share of discussions about the line between 2.0-style blogging and good old-fashioned splogging. This is the first time, though, I’ve seen the same kind of argument come up in the world of print. Sure, at a glance, any journalist would label the Bulletin as a plagiarist based on Rosen’s discoveries — but could it, in fact, be doing the same thing sometimes argued as acceptable within web publishing? Maybe it’s just a step ahead of the rest of the newspaper publishing industry. Where does one draw the line?

The case does raise some interesting questions. In the end, though, I think most would agree to call it content theft. The Web may have loosened some rules and opened some opportunities for sharing, but there’s a difference between excerpting with due credit and downright ripping off. Lifting someone else’s words and passing them off as your own is plain ol’ plagiarism, no matter how you spin it — or how many different sources you combine.

That’s my take, and you can quote me on it…though you’d better properly attribute the words.