Plagiarism and the link: How the web makes attribution easier — and more complicated

Nate Thayer, the writer who touched off a debate this week about how freelancers are compensated, found himself embroiled in another controversy on Friday when he was accused of plagiarizing large parts of the piece that The Atlantic wanted him to re-work for free. In his defence, Thayer and his editor said links weren’t included in the original version due to an editing error, a mistake they later corrected. This failed to satisfy some of the writer’s critics, however, including the author of the piece that Thayer based some of his reporting on.
If nothing else, the incident helps reinforce just how blurry the line is between plagiarism and sloppy attribution — and also how the the web makes it easier to provide attribution via hyperlinks, but at the same time makes it harder to define what is plagiarism or content theft and what isn’t.
To Jeremy Duns, who first blew the whistle on what he said was Thayer’s plagiarism, the case seemed open and shut: chunks of the article about North Korea and basketball, including a number of quotes, appeared to have been lifted straight from a piece by San Diego Union-Tribune writer Mark Zeigler on the same topic in 2006. And there was virtually no attribution of any kind in the original version of Thayer’s story, which appeared at the site, apart from one oblique reference to the Union-Tribune — and no links.

Even as Duns was writing his blog post about this incident of plagiarism, however, links began to appear in the Thayer piece, including a link to Zeigler’s original story. To Duns, this was evidence that the author was trying to cover his tracks, but in a comment to Columbia Journalism Review, NKNews editor Tad Farrell said that the lack of links was due to an editing error and that the site added them as soon as it could. Thayer vehemently denied that he was a plagiarist or that he intended to leave out the attribution.
So all’s well that ends well, right? In a follow-up post, the CJR’s Sara Morrison said that Duns clearly jumped to the wrong conclusions (since at least one of those who provided a quote that Duns questioned confirmed that they had in fact talked to Thayer for his piece). Duns wasn’t buying it, however, saying the attribution and links were only added later under protest. As he put it:

“Even hyperlinking to such a huge lift without mentioning the publication or author at all would have been something of a stretch – it’s a hell of a lot of material taken directly to cite with just one bolded word.”

Interestingly enough, Zeigler wasn’t all that satisfied either: although he said he wasn’t prepared to call Thayer a plagiarist, he didn’t think a couple of small links were enough to give him the appropriate attribution for his work. As he put it: “I don’t think just highlighting a few words of type in a different color necessarily qualifies as a proper attribution,” adding that his story “took a lot of work and a lot of man hours” to report and write.
The problem is that while adding hyperlinks is a great way of avoiding a charge of plagiarism — something that might have helped Fox News opinion writer Juan Williams and other alleged plagiarists — there is no accepted protocol for how or where to add those links, or how much content someone can cut and paste into their story or blog post without crossing the line from borrowing into plagiarism or copyright infringement.

How much content is too much to take?

This is also the root of the controversy over what some call the “over-aggregation” by sites like The Huffington Post (s aol) and Business Insider, where large chunks of stories from other sites — and in some cases, the entire story or post — is published, along with a “via” link somewhere at the bottom of the post. Other blogs, including The Verge and Engadget, have been criticized in the past for burying links to the original source of the content they reproduce, to try and disguise what they have borrowed.
And if you broaden the lens even further, a similar problem is at the root of the fight that Google (s goog) has been up against in country after country over its use of excerpts from news stories in Google News — stories that come from newspapers and other traditional sources. Germany has passed a law to control the use of such excerpts, even those as short as a single word, and in other countries like France and Belgium, those traditional outlets have sued Google to try and force payment for that content.
Google’s defence is that it links prominently to the original source, and this drives traffic to the publisher’s site, which is fundamentally the same argument that Business Insider and Huffington Post and others use to defend their aggregation of content. But those whose content is used argue, as Brian Morrissey of Digiday did in a back-and-forth with Business Insider founder Henry Blodget, that taking their content produces far more value for the aggregator than it provides in return.
So it seems that when it comes to making use of someone else’s content, linking as a way of providing attribution and credit is enough — except when it isn’t.
Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Zurijeta and Arvind Grover