Rolling Stone and the MSM Copyright Thieves

It’s good to see David Carr take Politico and Time to task for their egregious violations of copyright (not to mention journalistic standards) in posting full PDFs of Rolling Stone’s huge McChrystal story.

As I wrote last Tuesday:

That’s about as clear and cynical an example of copyright infringement as you can find, and Politico and Time ought to consider themselves fortunate if Rolling Stone decides not to go after them for it.

Carr hoists the MSM on its own petard:

It was a clear violation of copyright and professional practice, and it amounted to taking money out of a competitor’s pocket. What crafty guerrilla site or bottom-feeder would do such a thing?

Turns out it was and Politico, both well-financed, reputable news media organizations, that blithely stepped over the line and took what was not theirs.

Carr later goes on to say “The technical, legal term for what they did is, um, stealing.”

Right-o. And Rolling Stone editor Eric Bates is justifiably hot about it:

“This is not about our slow-footedness on the Web, but our right to publish on a schedule we chose. To me, this was really a transitional moment,” said Mr. Bates of Rolling Stone. “We’ve had fan sites that have published the text of some stories, but what these two big media organizations did was really off the charts. They took something that was in a prepublished form, sent out to other media organizations with specific restrictions, and just put it up.”

So, these guys are ashamed and have learned their lesson now, huh? Well, it appears Time has, apologizing for its “mistake.” But Politico has no such compunction (emphasis mine):

Reached by e-mail on a plane, Jim VandeHei, executive editor and a founder of Politico, suggested that the imperatives of the news cycle superseded questions of custody. “Our reporters got the article from sources with no restrictions,” he wrote. “It was being circulated and widely discussed among insiders, and our team felt readers should see what insiders were reading and reacting to. Rolling Stone raised a reasonable objection once they posted the story, so we quickly agreed to link to their URL.”

Well, gee, thanks. Rolling Stone exists because it sells magazines. It had a strategy to maximize how it recoups the enormous outlays it spends on investigative journalism by driving magazine sales and charging readers online. Politico and Time stole its work and gave it away for free to anybody and everybody on the Internet—upending that strategy.

I think this is more than a dispute between friends, especially with Politico. Rolling Stone has an open-and-shut copyright-infringement lawsuit against them. If the magazine wants to warn off future thieves and keep control of its business strategy, it ought to take advantage of it. If it doesn’t, what’s to keep outlets from getting cheap traffic next time the magazine has a big story?

As I noted last week, this isn’t the first time it’s work has gotten stolen wholesale on the Web. I’ve seen lots of bloggers hosting Scribd PDFs of Matt Taibbi’s RS pieces. That’s wrong.

And it’s bad business. If Rolling Stone wants to give its strategy a go, it’s going to have to nail the people who steal its work.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.