In a post put up on Moneyweb today, managing editor Ryk van Niekerk alleges that a series of Moneyweb articles were lifted “either fully or partially, and published unlawfully” on Fin 24.
Based on those allegations, the site says that it has launched an application in the Gauteng South High Court against Fin 24 for “alleged plagiarism, copyright infringement and unfair competition”.
The application, which is believed to be the first of its kind in the country, and will likely be a test for South Africa’s copyright laws, which have been in place since 1978 and have were last updated in 2002.
According to van Niekerk, a former Media 24 employee, the issue is partially down to the different business models adopted by the two sites:
Moneyweb’s business model is quite simple. We attract visitors to the website by the publication of unique and original content. This demands significant investment in editorial content. This content is available for free to our community, and we pay our bills, or at least try to, by the serving of digital advertising.
Fin24 on the other hand follows a low-cost business model, where there is virtually no investment in original and unique content. Fin24 predominantly publishes inexpensive syndicated wire copy from SAPA, Reuters and AFP.
Unfortunately, this content does not differentiate Fin24’s content from other websites.
To overcome this problem, Fin24’s content editors crawl other news websites such as Moneyweb in search of interesting content. When they find such an interesting article, the editors copy the article, either in full or in significant part, and then rewrite the information to some extent.
The rewriting of the article is aimed at changing the sentences of the original article to ensure that these sentences are not all used verbatim in the Fin24 article. The key is that the core essence of the original article appears in the Fin24 version.
While van Niekerk acknowledges that there is usually a reference to Moneyweb and a link back to the original article, he alleges that “it is never indicated to the reader that the full original article is available via the link”.
Fin24 meanwhile says that it has stuck strictly to fair use guidelines in the stories under scrutiny and has the backing of its parent organisation.
“At no time did we pretend to pass off the work of others as our own,” News24 editor in chief Jannie Momberg said in a statement. The site adds that “content was clearly attributed and linked providing valuable exposure, transfer of audience and strong benefits for search engine optimisation – a common practice among digital publishing operations”.
“Moneyweb’s response to the workings of digital media is clearly an old media approach from a company struggling to retain market share,” said Momberg.
“We will defend these principles vigorously and look forward to setting a legal precedent for fair use and content aggregation — a practice that is as old as the free media and used by every single media organisation globally,” he added.
The points raised by both parties are interesting and, whatever the outcome of the proceedings, a new precedent for South African copyright law will be set. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Fin24 will likely be able to present statistics for how much traffic it drives back to Moneyweb with the links to its articles, something that a radio station citing a story from a print operation for instance will not be able to do.
It’s also possible that if a ruling is reached it might be made on a story by story basis rather than around the principle as a whole. If that is the case, then the interest will shift from fair use as a general principle online to where the line of fair use and mutual beneficence lies.