Tuesday, June 13, 2006

WebProNews and Plagiarism 2.0

When I am not composing snarky satires for The WitList, I write fascinating stories about the Internet, gadgets, and assorted topics-du-geek for a wide range of magazines and Web sites. My work has appeared in PC World, Family Circle, Men's Fitness, Popular Science, and 40-odd other venues. I'm a busy guy.

Last month, my work also appeared in WebProNews, a low-rent technology news site. Only it appeared with someone else's name attached to it and -- even more galling -- someone else's copyright notice. How my story got there, and what ultimately happened to it, is what this blog entry is all about.

The story began when I received an email from a reader who had uncovered striking similarities between my Gadget Freak column on universal remotes ("One Remote to Rule Them All") and a story by Alex Bard in WebProNews called "Can One Remote Control Do It All? Probably not." [This story has since been removed from the site, but you can find a cached copy here.] Which one of us, he wondered, was the plagiarist?

The two stories had different intros and a few differences in phrasing, but otherwise they were identical. They covered the same topic and the same products, had the same structure, the same facts, the same complaints, and the same conclusions. But at the very end, Bard's story added a small note: "Additional information from PC World."

Thus bringing new meaning to the word "chutzpah."

Now, this particular Gadget Freak column is unlikely to win any Pulitzers. But it did require several days of honest work -- researching products, contacting vendors, getting gizmos shipped to me, testing and troubleshooting each one, writing my column, and dealing with three rounds of edits.

By contrast, it probably took Alex Bard all of 20 minutes to slap a new intro on my column and copy/paste the rest of it into his word processor.

I'm not complaining about how long it takes to write Gadget Freak; I'm well paid for my work, and I enjoy doing it. But it is my work; it belongs to me (and PC World), not some Bozo too lazy to do his own research.

So I did a little checking on Mr. Bozo, and discovered that I am in excellent company. Thirty minutes of Googling turned up stories from The New York Times, Associated Press, MSNBC, and CNET with Bard's name attached.

For example, a New York Times story by Maria Aspan titled "MySpace Will Play Host to a Free Magazine Issue" became an Alex Bard story called "My Space to Offer Free Magazine." Again the intro is new, but the essential facts and structure of both stories are the same.

A CNET story by Joris Evers titled "Circuit City Warns of Online Forum Attack" reappeared on WebProNews as "Online Forum Attack on Circuit City." This time, Bard was too lazy to extrude a new intro.

CNET's story begins:

Part of the Circuit City Web site was hacked and used in an attempt to install malicious code on PCs of unknowing visitors, the electronics retailer said Thursday.

Bard's story begins:

Part of the Circuit City Web site was hacked and used in an attempt to install malicious code on PCs of unknowing visitors, the electronics retailer said Thursday.

Bard did offer some (lame) advice near the end that was not in CNET's story, but the reporting was all Evers'.

On June 1 Alex Bard stole an AP story that ran on MSNBC as "Finance Firm Loses Data on 1.3M Customers" and republished it as "1.3 Million Customers Data Disappears From Financial Firm." He briefly cites MSNBC as the source, but otherwise runs the item nearly verbatim. Bard was apparently copying and pasting so fast that he missed the AP copyright line at the bottom of the story:

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Unfortunately, Bard isn't some rare reporter gone rogue. He's just a particularly egregious example of what you'll find throughout WebProNews and affiliated sites like SecurityProNews. In my brief survey of WebProNews, I did not find a single story that appeared to offer original reporting. Some writers were better than others at excerpting passages from their sources and linking to them, but most articles contained a passing reference to the source (no link) and then the rest was a light rewrite of the original. Entire quotes were lifted whole, as if the person quoted had spoken to WebProNews, with no indication that some other reporter had conducted the interview.

It's the High School Term Paper approach to Web publishing. Find it published elsewhere, rewrite it, call it your own. There's only one problem with this approach: It's illegal. It goes way beyond Fair Use and straight into Unfair Abuse.

You'd expect this kind of behavior from a blogger who didn't know any better, or a bot-driven splog created by some Eastern European hacker. But iEntry Inc., WebProNews' parent company, claims to deliver email newsletters to more than 4 million readers. If true, that would make them one of the largest e-publishers on the Net.

In other words, they should know better. And I suspect they do know better; but rather than invest in the resources necessary to do actual reporting, they piggyback on organizations that do and hope nobody notices.

This time, somebody did. PC World's attorneys sent a nastygram to WebProNews, and the story came down a few days later. But not before they tried to get away with keeping the story as is, adding the phrase "According to the following personal research done by Dan Tynan of PC World..." in paragraph three. Nice try, dickwads.

And soon, when this blog entry lands in the email inboxes of editors at the New York Times, AP, MSNBC, CNET, and the Washington Post (another WebProNews writer ripped them off), iEntry will be swimming in cease and desist letters. A covey of lawyers will descend upon them from a great height and begin gnawing on their entrails. If there's any justice in the world, Mr. Bard will soon be looking at a career change (may I suggest circus clown?) and iEntry will need to find a new Web publishing MO.

Or not. In any case, it ought to be fun to watch. Stay tuned for further developments.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hey Dan, how did you find the stories? Did you just look at stuff that "Alex Bard" wrote and search on phrases in the manuscript, or did you use some other method? It might just be that this guy Bard was a thieving hack, not that it's the company line to plagiarize.

1:36 AM  
Anonymous Spike said...

Danny, you're going to love this one:


1:41 AM  

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