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Time to re-think the re-write

IT'S TIME to re-think the practice of rewriting stories as instant catch-ups. The issue has been brought to a head by Australian freelance Ginger Gorman, who invoiced the Daily Mail's Australian website after it published rewritten versions of two of her stories, with no perceptible original research. The Mail refused to pay her invoice for AU$2000.

The Mail justified its action by saying "there's no copyright in ideas". This is true, in Australia as it is in the UK.

But is it ethical? And is it harming journalism?

In days of yore, all the London papers would send people to King's Cross station of a night to obtain copies of their rivals' first editions as they went on the train to go oop North. They'd rush them back to the office, where some poor schlub would rewrite the jucier stories in the paper's own style and bung them in the second and subsequent editions.

Arguably, this served journalism as a whole well. Someone who wouldn't read anything less than the Times could still be informed of much of what the Mirror had dug up - and sometimes vice versa.

Now, with all the papers online in one form or another... the practice is equivalent to the distinctly disreputable "spinning". This refers, not to the dark arts of political persuasion, but to parasitic websites that exist purely to rewrite others' work, with a maximum density of search-engine-friendly keywords, to garner slivers of ad revenue by poaching "hits".

The results can be amusing, especially when these parasitic sites use auto-spinning software that simply looks up key words in a thesaurus and bungs in one result at random. But they're not actually informing anyone of anything. And if the Mail is not using such software, it would seem to be a matter of time before it does.

Ginger Gorman now has two choices, as the law stands. She can swallow hard and move on: or she can find a very large wodge of cash to ask a court to rule that the Mail's versions were "substantially similar" to the actual phrasing of her stories.

For copyright to cover facts or ideas remains a terrible idea: think, for starters, about a world in which you needed the permission of the Moloch Corporation to quote from its annual report. But for it not to cover "spinning" is looking increasingly untenable too. How to do that? Ideas on a postcard, please...