JOHANNESBURG – Moneyweb has launched an application in the Gauteng South High Court against Fin24 for alleged plagiarism, copyright infringement and unfair competition.
This application is the first of its kind in South Africa and I hope it will set legal precedent of so-called fair use and content aggregation policies. This is desperately needed as Fin24’s current modus operandi and interpretation of fair use principles poses a serious threat to future investment into original content and investigative journalism. This will affect every single publisher in the country.
The Moneyweb application concerns a series of articles written by Moneyweb journalists and contributors, which Fin24 copied, either fully or partially, and published unlawfully. The conduct of Fin24 amounts to systematic plagiarism on an industrial scale and forms a core part of its business model in an effort to gain a commercial advantage for itself.
The overwhelming majority of publishers in South Africa adhere to the highest standards of ethical journalism. Fin24’s conduct suggests that different rules apply for online publications. We seek clarity from the courts as to where the line is to be drawn between plagiarism and fair usage of the work of others.
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.
Fin24’s modus operandi
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.
There is usually one reference to the source website and a link to the original article – though it is never indicated to the reader that the full original article is available via the link.
We feel that this represents an infringement of Moneyweb’s copyright.
In some cases Fin24 may augment the copied articles with additional information from other sources, but in virtually all cases the most important content or the essence of the Moneyweb articles is re-used.
This is unlawful as Fin24 operates in direct competition with Moneyweb. This approach denies Moneyweb additional traffic to its website, and revenue as advertising is based on the number of page views. Furthermore, Fin24 receives additional page views and therefore profits from our investment in the content.
The reality is that the small niche player invests heavily in original content, which the dominant player in the market then plagiarises to save costs. Moneyweb hopes that our application will provide a clear legal guideline of what is permissible, and what is not.
Moneyweb contends that Fin24’s conduct is unlawful in two respects. First, it infringes Moneyweb’s copyright and secondly it constitutes the delict of unlawful competition against Moneyweb.
The unlawful copying of content is not only limited to Moneyweb. Several other financial websites in the country such as BDLive, IOL and MyBroadband are also victims.
The end of investigative journalism
The ability of Fin24 to free ride on the efforts of competitors will reduce the incentive to invest in original journalism. This has a much broader impact on society than a mere spat between two publications.
This would inevitably damage the public and its rights to receive information. The tendency will then be for media entities to reduce considerably (or indeed scrap) the resources they currently put into investigating and reporting new and breaking stories.
Apart from anything else, this will substantially reduce the diversity of news reporting.
Moneyweb has asked the court to declare Fin24’s publication of the relevant articles unlawful and to compel Fin24 to remove these articles from its website. We have also asked for declaration that Fin24 is liable for damages and that a separate damage enquiry be held to determine the amount.
Fin24 has not filed answering papers. Moneyweb will publish these documents in full once we have received them.