Wired/Epicenter alerts us to the controversy swirling around the Huffington Post's new Chicago edition. Last week, Whet Moser of the Chicago Reader caught the Huffington Post using an entire Reader concert preview without permission. Later in the day, he discovered that the Huffington Post's Chicago Concert's page was stocked with full-text appropriations from the Reader and other sites like Time Out Chicago, Centerstage, and the Onion's Decider. Moser was understandably irked:
You want to do a post that says, "According to Jessica Hopper, Bon Iver rules, check 'em out, go here for the info," fine. But taking an entire concert preview is bush league. Doing it as a practice is just beneath contempt. If the future of journalism--which everyone keeps telling me the Huffington Post represents--is a bunch of search-engine optimization scams, we have bigger problems than Sam Zell's bad investment strategies.
Wholesale copying like this is not just ethically suspect and terrible for public relations; it is also copyright infringement. Although not a lawyer, Moser's quote reveals a pretty good sense of what fair use allows under the circumstances -- a link with a short summary or quotation is no problem, but taking the entirety of someone's work is rarely legally justified.
To its credit, the Huffington Post has already corrected the Chicago Concert's page so it no longer reproduces entire articles. Co-founder Jonah Peretti told Wired that "the complete re-printing was a mistaken editorial call and that The Huffington Post's intention in aggregating other publications' content is to send traffic their way."
Still, some aren't happy with the well-funded news site's aggregation strategy more generally (putting aside any issue of wholesale copying). New Orleans journalist Kevin Allman captures the sentiment well: "In other words: professional newsgathering organizations have paid professional writers to do professional work, and then Arianna comes in, creates links to their creations, and sells ads on her own page. How progressive." Gawker puts it more bluntly, accusing HuffPo of acting like "a grubby, Google-spamming AdSense scammer."
While I'm no fan of wholesale verbatim copying like what happened with the concert previews, I think these more general criticisms -- which could be leveled at any aggregator -- aren't particularly fair. If the Huffington Post stays within the bounds of fair use and does not deceptively claim anyone else's work as its own, I see no problem with it acting as a selector, organizor, and curator of others' content. Maybe I'm missing something -- don't hesitate to tell me so in the comments.