onsdag, juli 30, 2008

In the Company of Wolves

Klondike Kat Always Gets His Mouse!In a former life I was editing a construction trade magazine. Our bread and butter was a particularly data-intense annual issue that we'd come to call The Human Stain in-house. (Our two other bad boy directories were known as The Dog Zoo and The Beast. The Beast was so awful that the editorial director placed outside her office a bucket labeled "Lung Bucket." It was where she made it clear she'd deposit someone's lungs if they messed up her participant forms.)

One year as I struggled through the Human Stain, a company faxed me a photocopy of another company's product data. They'd made revisions to the names, changing the names of the products to their own product names.

A weak explanation on the form indicated that they had an agreement with this other company and that this would be an okay edit.

I ignored it, much in the way it's said that the press corp, way back when, ignored the indiscretions, personal failings and discomforts of presidents and other key public officials because to talk about such things seemed too catty for "real news" and the American news diet.


Now I'm in another life, but one very similar to the former. It is still trade-heavy and on the construction side of things. And I'm thinking about scraping.

Scraping is the nabbing of content from one source and posting it elsewhere as if it's your own or at least yours by permission. Bloggers--including myself--are often scraped by blogs and sites set up as nothing more than a warehouse of Google Ads. The scraped content is used to attract search engines, which are used to attract readers. They arrive at the scraper site and, look at that!, they find ads. Maybe they click one. Cha-ching! Money in the bank for the scraper.

You can report these sites and get them blocked or warned, etc., but in going to these sites you open yourself up to another problem: potential malware (that is, invasive software often hidden in a "cookie"...which your browser may already be set to automatically accept because so many sites demand you accept them so you can also see the offerings of their "legitimate" sponsors, and so those sponsors and sites can track your habits).

It's sort of like electric kudzu.

All of this is in my mind today because I've sort of started the legal wheels turning against a company in my industry because of the scraping that firm has been doing on a company "blog."


I didn't necessarily intend to launch a legal matter, and maybe I haven't, maybe the resolution is more pleasant, but I just don't know. It's much too early, but something is in motion.

Because A Company took content that B Company had paid me to arrange on behalf of C Company. I learned of this through a Google News Alert (under the Blog Alert heading). An industry-specific keyword on which I receive alerts was set off by this blog entry at A Company's website.

The entry contained content I'd worked on for B and C Companies. All the links were removed and replaced with links to other pages on A Company's website. Credit for B Company's site, where I published the piece, was not given. No link to C Company was provided, even though the piece was about its products. Even with the specific products, A Company's intra-blog links stayed in the main A Company website.

So I wrote C Company and asked if it had a business relationship with A Company, in which case I was willing to turn a blind eye to things because it could spur business for C Company--who paid the people who pay me--via A Company's potential work with C's products.

Alas, there was no relationship. C Company wrote to me and CCed its legal rep within the company and asked for the context regarding how I'd discovered this. I told them. I even pointed out how A Company had done this seemingly with all its 250+ blog entries, usually by pasting a newspaper's article copy into a blog entry and filling it with A Company-promotional links (while also stripping out source and author credit).

All of the links were, in turn, tagged with further promotional material even though the content wasn't about them.

Among competitors, this could be used in rather unethical ways (though how do you determine harm?). For example, your company is Swedish Widgets and Crockery. A competitor comes along and post your same text: This is the home page of Swedish Widgets and Crockery.

Roll your cursor over that name but do not click it. Let the cursor sit there a moment. A different name should pop up.

Essentially, that's the sort of piggybacking one could do if all this was allowed to go unchecked.

I wouldn't call it a vicious circle, but I would say it's annoying; like national politics.


A good deal of blogging, including my own use of it, involves some scraping, or borrowing, or whatever we're going to call it other than theft. I think there are very legitimate ways of doing so, even for people who blog for profit (I'm unfortunately not one of them, though this profitlessness gives me the lovely freedom to sort of wander off for months at a time).

Bloggers tend to use the content of other's in two essential ways:

* Pasting text, such as news, in order to share an interesting point / story or to really take issue with it

* Messing with images--such as putting devil horns on politicians--for satire or expression; or using an image in a clearly new and disassociated context for a point or theme, such as when some idiot might use an image of Klondike Kat atop an overly long blog entry about blogging ethics and actually turning someone in--even sort of accidentally--because of that person's clear violation of ethics.

I think both of these uses are perfectly acceptable, and as far as one might take our protection of writing and speech--by which I mean using it, not surpressing creative (or even lame) use--I think we should. I don't approve of a society entirely under the lock and key of corporate copyright offices. In the styles noted above, text reuse is generally with citation, such as to the New York Times or the National Review, because people who take the time to do this usually want you to know what they've been reading.

It's their way of saying (if not outright), "Can you believe this shit!?"

In the case of images, I think they are usually without citation because (a) most people don't know how to cite images [this includes many English instructors, though they usually know how to look it up in a guide] and (b) most of us online use images in a manner as we might in a collage. In a notebook. In high school.


I don't know what happens next. I feel bad. Sort of. I've had plenty of good conversations with the people at A Company before.

Certainly they intended to generate traffic, and traffic could lead to money. (The news articles they were scraping, by the way, were construction and engineering-oriented, usually in areas the products they work with are involved.) So while this wasn't a case like a Google Ad-mad scraper, it's a similar beast.

Have they used other companies like this? I don't know. I haven't carved through it all. I'm not going to.

I just don't understand why a legitimate, noted business would put itself out there with such liability not just for copyright infringement but clear misuse of a competitor's name, products, service and promotion. How much dumb can one claim?

Part of me thinks today's events unfolded because what A Company did with another company's name was worse than what it had been doing to news articles.

Part of me thinks they unfolded because what A Company has been doing to real news is worse. You know, it's, like, freedom of press and the sanctity of the written worth, man. What Lincoln said.

And part of me thinks these events have come to a head because what A Company did affected me. Because in all honesty I'd known their blog was out there, and I'd known they'd scraped content. But I didn't react because I hoped they'd change, or I hoped they'd run out of energy like so many bloggers, or I had run out of energy for getting torqued up on these matters because there are so many who just say screw it to ethics, especially when money may be involved.

I hoped, at any rate, that they wouldn't bother me.

But they did. They took my words, and not just my words but the words I'd written for hire. And not even my words for hire, really, but only some of them. Because, as I am so often during the work day, I was just a wet nurse for words birthed by someone else, words I'd been asked to care for and draw attention to and perhaps make even more profitable.


Blogger Claire said...

Wow. That's quite the situation, right there.


12:18 fm  

Skicka en kommentar

<< Home