OPINION: Moneyweb’s looming court clash with Media24 for plagiarism of its content will have big implications for the business of news, says Rob Rose.
In a few weeks, business website Moneyweb will clash with Naspers’s Media24 in the high court in a case with serious implications for the business of news.
The story dates back to 2013, when Moneyweb’s reporters spent much time cracking open the Defencex investment scam and other stories.
They spent hours poring over documents, going to laborious investor meetings and then writing stories such as ‘Defencex mastermind rallies support’.
Media24’s Fin24 wasted no such time, however. Instead, they claim they “sourced” information from the Moneyweb stories and put them up on their website under titles such as “Defencex boss rallies support”.
This was just one example of what Moneyweb describes as “plagiarism on an industrial scale”. It cites numerous other articles which were similarly “borrowed” by Fin24, including pieces on Group 5, Anglo Platinum and various others. (Even the errors in the Moneyweb articles were reproduced by Fin24.)
So Moneyweb went to court for an interdict to stop Fin24 stealing its original work – a case that will be heard on 7 May.
But what is intriguing is the defence put up by News24.com’s (former) editor in chief, Jannie Momberg. (Momberg now heads up News24’s Africa operations.)
For starters, Momberg says there is “no copyright and no exclusivity in the news”, and that there is a public interest in “rereporting the core elements” of a news story.
This seems unfeasible: Why would a book that records factual elements, say Long Walk to Freedom, enjoy copyright, while an article wouldn’t?
But Momberg’s argument gets stranger.
In particular, he daggers the apparently quaint notion that journalists go out, speak to people and gather as many facts as possible, then come back and report them.
“The method of journalism rather sanctimoniously espoused by [Moneyweb] of sending out reporters to the scene of each event, trying to conduct interviews and generally trying to obtain all information first-hand, has become largely outdated and antiquated in the 21st century practice of digital media publishing,” he argues.
Momberg says: “It is no longer practical … to delay the dissemination of news until such time as an available reporter may be found and dispatched to the scene.”
Instead, he says, media houses must “rely on the news being disseminated by the first reporter on the scene and then picked up upon and disseminated further”.
At best, this means only one journalist will do original news gathering, which will be widely parroted by everyone else — provided he’s any good and doesn’t get it wrong.
At worst, it means the days of original news gathering will end. After all, why spend money sending a reporter to find out what’s happening if that story will simply be uploaded by competitors?
One wonders how a number of fine journalists who still work at Media24’s titles — including Beeld, Rapport and City Press — would feel about the view that their job of going out and obtaining information first-hand is “antiquated”? Let alone Momberg’s apparent view that their work isn’t “original” and worthy of copyright protection?
The news business is in a precarious place at the moment. Thanks largely to the internet, newspaper circulation is dropping — 1.5 million newspapers were being sold every day in late 2005, a figure down to 1.2million — and there’s no obviously workable model for selling news nearly as profitably online.
Moneyweb’s financial results last week showed it eked out a profit of just R245 000 for the six months to December. So, if it loses out on advertising on its website because its original stories are being pirated almost immediately, why bother investing in telling the news?
In this case, while many of those Fin24 articles at issue did carry links to the original Moneyweb article, 98.5% of the people who read the Fin24 “versions” did not click on the link to go to Moneyweb’s website.
If Fin24 is right, what incentive is there for any news service to spend thousands investigating big issues — say Nkandla or Eskom— when someone can simply copy the work?
And if they stop investing, journalism that roots out the crooks, tax dodgers and snake-oil salesmen will die — and society will be poorer.
At least both sides seem to realise the gravity of this case, and have hired heavy-hitting counsel, including Philip Ginsburg, Steven Budlender and Cedric Puckrin.
Which is just as well. The outcome will determine what you read about what happens in this country.
This article originally appeared in Business Times. It is republished here with the permission of the author.
* Opinions expressed in posts published on The Media Online are not necessarily those of Wag the Dog Publishers or the editor but contribute to the diversity of voices in South Africa.