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Summary:

Some call it aggregation, while others call it copyright infringement or even theft. In a recent Twitter debate sparked by a post on the topic, Digiday’s editor-in-chief and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget traded theories.

Plagiarism. Copyright infringement. Traffic hijacking. These are all terms publishers like to use when someone excerpts their content without permission, whether it’s Google News or The Huffington Post. Some digital publishers have different words for it, however: they prefer to call it curation, or aggregation, or just old-fashioned blogging. The latest iteration of this long-standing debate came on Tuesday, when a piece at Digiday about rampant aggregation triggered a Twitter back-and-forth between editor Brian Morrissey and Business Insider founder Henry Blodget.

In his post at Digiday, entitled “Surviving the Media Aggregation Economy,” Morrissey argues that we are trapped in a digital-media environment based on boosting pageviews to draw more advertising, and that this has “taken publishers hostage.” Publishers like Business Insider, he says, have taken this approach to its logical conclusion and generate a lot of their revenue by repurposing content created by others. In one case, Business Insider posted a screenshot of a Digiday post along with a paragraph lifted from the original, and put a new headline on it. Says Morrissey:

“The result: It generated 224 pageviews for the Digiday story. Along the way, BI banked another 1,500-plus pageviews — and that many ‘welcome ad’ impressions along with multiple banners and a ‘native’ video ad. Meanwhile, Digiday’s original post — thought up and executed by our staff — got 2,500 pageviews. Is this a fair trade?”

It’s more efficient to aggregate than create

Morrissey goes on to note that Blodget likes to brag about how efficient his publishing platform is, and how his site gets an average of 180,000 pageviews per day per employee — orders of magnitude larger than many traditional media players such as the New York Times or Bloomberg. But the Digiday editor says much of this efficiency is driven by Business Insider’s repurposing of content created by others (Note: We’re going to be discussing alternate forms of monetization for content at our paidContent Live conference in New York on April 17). As Morrissey puts it in his post:

“Based on my experience, I can’t help but wonder if BI’s “efficiency” is bought at the expense of others. It’s like European countries bragging about low defense spending while relying on the U.S. to do the heavy lifting through NATO. It’s easy to be efficient when you draft off others.”

The debate expanded to Twitter when Blodget responded to Morrissey’s complaint, and suggested that if the Digiday editor was concerned about the screenshot of the images that appeared in the original, Business Insider would be happy to take them out. But Morrissey said his point was that the whole approach is wrong:

Morrissey-Blodget1

Business Insider argues Digiday should be grateful

Blodget argued that publishers like Digiday should be interested in exposing their content to as many different readers and potential readers as possible, and therefore Morrissey should be glad that Business Insider excerpted the post and included a link — something the Business Insider founder compared to a story that appears at Google News, or to the New York Times running a story based on a Wall Street Journal scoop:

Morrissey-Blodget2

Morrissey said that he was happy to have sites link to his content, provided they drove readers in substantial enough numbers, and that he was a big fan of the aggregation site Mediagazer as well as LinkedIn’s content portal. But in his post he noted that Business Insider had gotten close to 100,000 pageviews from content “aggregated” from Digiday, while the latter got a relatively minuscule 14,000 pageviews from Business Insider’s links.

Morrissey-Blodget3

Aggregation is a reality, whether we like it or not

It’s probably fair to say that versions of this debate have been going on for almost as long as the web has been around: questions about “link juice” and the “link economy,” in which traffic driven by an aggregator is supposed to make up for the alleged insult of excerpting their content, and so on. The Huffington Post used to be the poster child for what some have called “over-aggregation,” but now that mantle seems to have passed to Business Insider. And some believe that regardless of whether or not such behavior is legal or permitted under copyright law, it is unethical:

Morrissey-Blodget4

As I’ve tried to point out before, aggregation or curation is a fact of life in the digital age — just as record companies have had to learn to live with rampant downloading and sharing of music, publishers of all kinds are trying to get used to the idea that their content is no longer under their control. In some cases, aggregation fulfills a useful function, as it did in one notorious case involving a Forbes post by Kashmir Hill that was based on a New York Times feature. In other cases, the usefulness is debatable.

As Morrissey points out in his piece, until the financing model for online media involves something other than pure pageview-driven advertising revenue, aggregation is unlikely to stop. The only protection is to have content whose value can’t be summed up in a screenshot or a paragraph excerpt, and a relationship with your readers that is based on more than just how many pageviews you can generate. (Note: There’s a Storify of Blodget and Morrissey’s full conversation here).

Images courtesy of Shutterstock / Zurijeta

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  1. I almost tend to agree with what Digiday is saying here.

    I feel there are 3 variants of this syndrome:
    (1) Content aggregation like paper.li, scoop.it which tend to show a clip of the post and redirect to original for details
    (2) limited excerpt from original articles and attributing source like BI to Digiday
    (3) copy-paste-translate of copyrighted articles put on networks like CSDN with hyperlink given to original English post.

    Needless to mention which one of the above three bleeds the author more…

  2. Aggregators are leeches that would not / could not exist without content creators.

    1. A fair point, but it’s also a fact of life (as the author says) that the concept of ‘my content’ no longer exists. Personally, I don’t think the principle of aggregating other people’s content is wrong per se, but it is wrong that aggregators get a lion’s share of the rewards as a result.

      iTunes works on the same principle – without other people’s content it wouldn’t exist and yet they make a lot of money from it. But it adds a unique channel for content distribution (along with a gazillion eyeballs), so the model works for everyone involved.

      Until there is a fairer distribution of rewards here, the aggregation model is fundamentally unfair to content producers/owners.

  3. Amarpreet Kalkat Thursday, February 7, 2013

    The debate has to be thought out in terms of adding value. Is BI adding any value for the consumer by reproducing the article? Or is it just taking advantage of its better ranking ability/existing audience without adding any value. Because in that case, it is basically “leeching” value from Digiday.

    I, in fact, speak from the other side of the table – I run what you call a curation/aggregation service called Frrole. The question we always ask ourselves is exactly this – what value are we adding. And we are pretty clear, while one type of value for the consumer is the content itself, the second is having the selection of the right content in front of him. Here is Frrole’s SF page for eg (http://frrole.com/san+francisco) and I can tell you that no ‘content producer’ really has a better way to help the user stay updated on SF than us. (Not even a curator for that matter, but that’s another point altogether).

    Content producers typically tend to do a a good job of the first one, and aggregators/curators by their very nature tend to do a good job of the second one. Together, they create something valuable for the consumer and that is something that both parties need to understand.

    An ironic truth however is that more than 50% of news consumption tends to be just in the form of these snippets, and that is something that the content producers will hate. Iff somehow, there was a rule that a user will click on that ‘read more’ link for any post he or she finds interesting, I guess this would have been a happy world, but unfortunately, that is not how it is. And the content producers will need to learn to live with that irony.

  4. The problem is not aggregation as such. There are 3 ways people discover content search, social and the 4-8 sites that people have bookmarked. Since each [erson hasa different set of bookmarks aggregation gets content into a different set of sites and generates new readers who would never have seen the original.

    The real issue is that when content is aggregated it’s often done in a way that doesn’t help the originator. [caution I'm about to plug my product] When we built Repost (http://repost.us) we went a different route – we allow sites to embed the whole original, with branding, attribution, and importantly ads and analytics from the content owner. This evens the balance because the aggregator is still getting ad impressions in the framing while the owner is now getting impression from the ad traveling with the embedded article.

    What’s interesting here are the stats. We’ve found that the overlap in audience between sites is typically in the 1-5% range so 95-99% of the people seeing an embedded article are new readers. In addition the clicks from a typical “three sentences and a link” post run ~2% but if you let people embed the whole article that jumps to closer to 6% (we’ve seen as high as 30%). The increased clicks are driven by more opportunity, instead of one link at the bottom all the links in the original are preserved.

    Complaining about linking and aggregation won’t make it go away (as much as the French and Irish newspapers would like to think otherwise). The real solution is to let the content travel to where the readers are in away that increases reach, revenue and readership. After all, the best ad for content is still the content.

  5. I don’t mind content aggregators that add some other value to the content that is not provided by my own site. But those that simply copy and paste the content are unethical. It really is that simple.

  6. It is worth noting that in Ted Nelson’s original hypertext vision in the book “Literary Machines” (1965) he envisioned that every piece of information would carry metadata, including ownership, and later theorized that content owners could be compensated in microcents each time another person cited their original content. It actually wouldn’t be impossible to rewire the web to operate that way–Blodgett would pay every time he reposted.

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