Credit Others’ Work, Because You Should

The Ethics and Legalities of Plagiarism and Copyright

Problems with copyright and plagiarism  were tough enough in the early days of the Internet.  With social media, it has gotten even worse because the speed of production and transmission makes problems easier, both intentionally and unintentionally.

With so many folks empowered to practice something close to journalism, it’s important to go over what you have to do, and what you should do, in crediting other people’s work.

What You Have to Do: Law

Copyright can be a cool thing to help you, and anyone can copyright what they create.  All you have to do is register it with the Library of Congress (and pay $35).  Copyright is assumed from creation, even during the few months it takes to get it registered.

That gives you control over its use.  It doesn’t mean people have to pay you to use it, but it does give you the right to tell them to take it down if they don’t want to pay you. And they have to comply.

If even ESPN is using something created and copyrighted by a high school student, and using it without permission, the Worldwide Leader, like everyone, has to take it down.  No one has greater right to violate copyright, by size or reputation.

On the user end, you do need to be careful about copying and pasting copyrighted articles or photos without permission.  You can usually quote from a copyrighted work within an article (it’s called “fair use”), as long as you don’t take too much.

But if you post a photo or put an article on your blog, be aware that many companies trace their work to protect against unauthorized use. Often, a quick e-mail in advance will get permission, particularly if your blog or publication is personal or has a non-profit mission. And such e-mails look so pro.

What You Should Do: Ethics

The principle is simple: always give others credit for the work they create, and never present someone else’s work as your own or allow a reader or viewer to make that mistake. And laziness is no excuse.

That friend who said something funny on Twitter? Quote tweet it.

That photo that you can download and put on your own Facebook page? Let your friends know who took it.

Among the professionals, and those who are passionate about what they create, nothing earns the label of “jerk” like someone who plagiarize other people’s stuff without giving credit.

Those of us to who are passionate about the idea of creation — particularly the craft of writing — take this seriously because creation is such an important thing to us.  That’s why, whether in the fields of journalism or education — both of which traffic in information and ideas — plagiarism is a moral offense that must be published.

The person who created it might not know it was stolen, and the audience doesn’t know and we might rationalize that they don’t care.

But when something is lifted without credit, it’s like the thief does not respect the concept of creativity and that there is a person behind those words or that image, a person who put effort into creating the quality that gets an audience’s attention.

If you jump past that, you are showing a callousness toward the creative process that, in fact, demeans you as a member of a creative community.  Perhaps that’s why people who do that are referred to as “jerks” — the creativity of a better insult would be lost on the target.

I have often said that poor ethics comes from treating people as the means to an end, rather than an end in themselves.  In dealing with created work, don’t just think about that useful info you are rushing to put into your own work; think about the person behind it.

Develop the habit of giving credit where it’s due, and allow that to develop in you the respect that is also due to the creator, and to the process.

 

 

 

“Gotcha Tweets”–Nothing We Can’t Stop


Jonathan Bullard is a senior defensive tackle for Florida.  He passed on the NFL draft to return for his senior season, and is having a great year as a defensive leader for the Gators.

But for the right now, he is noteworthy for the following statement he made about how to defend LSU running back Leonard Fournette:

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It might seem like careless trash talk, but that was not happening here.

The Bullard tweet was taken from a longer quote (via @CodyWorsham): “He’s the best back in the league. We’re just going to have to rally to the ball to tackle him.  I don’t think it’s … he’s nothing we can’t stop, but we all have to rally to the ball, because he’s an excellent athlete.”

Confident, but not exactly bulletin board trash talk. But as tweeted by Mark Long of the Associated Press, the snippet was featured in articles by Bleacher Report and FOXSports.com (and a few LSU fan sites, I’d guess0.

In fairness, others presented the quote in its largest context, like Jerry Hinnen of CBSSports.com, Chase Goodbread of NFL.com, and Des Bieler of the Washington Post.

Fournette had been the subject of similar talk in recent weeks.  When asked about stopping Fournette before the Auburn-LSU game, Rudy Ford of Auburn said, “That shouldn’t be difficult, that much, of a challenge.”

To their credit, Auburn beat writers like Tom Green (@AUblog at @oanow) included quotes from elsewhere in Ford’s presser, but it was not the complete thought that Bullard provided.

College football fans remember how well that turned out — Auburn fans with particular pain.  And Ford’s disinterested attempt at tackling Ford on a long run (more a version of “one-hand touch”) didn’t make his life any easier after Fournette’s 228 yards on 19 carries.

The question is, did Long do right by Bullard? Obviously not. The quote was tweeted out of context, and I would predict that a small percentage of college football fans sought out the longer quote.

Bullard at first expressed his displeasure with what Long had done.

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Long did provide the longer quote more than an hour later, and acknowledged what happened to Bullard in a Twitter exchange.  Bullard, showing amazing class for how he had been misquoted, was gracious in his reply:

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But the damage had been done.

Anyone who knows media knows that the Associated Press is not a hot take machine. I did a temporary assignment for them way back in 1978, right out of college, and have always had a “gold-standard” level of respect for them.

I am not as familiar with Long as I am with the Alabama AP crew, but I would guess (and hope) that he does not gotcha-tweet too much.

That said (“hot take” pushers can stop reading here), anyone who considers himself or herself a journalist should understand the need to avoid out-of-context quotes, particularly on Twitter.

The SPJ Code of Ethics puts it this way: “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”  To the extent that Twitter does all three, it’s a relevant caution.

There seems to be extra caution, perhaps additional care, in working with college student-athletes, who sometimes lack media savvy.

Bullard, as a senior, could be expected to know better, and he did better, as his complete quote showed. Ford should simply be smarter, period. But sometimes a young athlete speaks unwisely. It is up to the individual journalist to know when to take the ball and run with it, or when to the hand the ball back and say, “Did you mean to give me this?”

Regardless of the age or media experience of the source, it is also up to journalists to treat all sources fairly, especially on Twitter. To paraphrase, a tweet makes its way around the world while a complete, contextual report is still putting on its boots.

Let’s make sure the tweets that we send into orbit are grounded in fairness and context.