I've been away enjoying family and the Passover holiday (which, like Thanksgiving, reliably incurs a killer food hangover), so I'm a bit late to the party on a recent mini-controversy, but I'd like to summarize and weigh in anyhow. 

In short, big media properties are increasingly reposting blog posts from smaller entities (read: bloggers), including them on their sites in ways that are less than transparent and designing them to look the same as content produced by in-house staff. Worse, this is often done without the knowledge of the producer. I don’t like this practice one bit.

These reposts usually take the form of long excerpts, a few paragraphs lifted from the original source with a link back to the original. That link is often conspicuously hidden or buried; sometimes it’s in the headline of the piece, sometimes in a “Read more” link below the excerpt. Either way, the end result is a post that looks native to the web site, but it isn’t. These big sites skirt around copyright issues by only “excerpting” posts, but they usually include enough information that a reader may not feel inclined to click through to the original post.

Publishers defend themselves by saying that the practice is a win-win: they diversify their content, and lesser-known blogs get traffic. This, of course, assumes that the blogs being linked to want or need the additional traffic (more on that below). And the publisher isn’t just diversifying content for diversity’s sake; it’s most likely wrapping ads around it as well and using it to promote itself. In theory, this means that the publisher is making money off of the reposted content, all without asking permission.

Call me nuts, but I don’t find this ethical.

Neither do a bunch of other folks out there. To varying degrees these people – Merlin Mann, Joshua Schachter, and Jason Kottke – all lay out producer-side arguments against the practice.

They’re specifically reacting to the Wall Street Journal’s AllThingsDigital, which has pioneered the practice. In this case, reposted items are designed to look exactly like in-house items. Imagine the surprise of, say, Delicious creator Joshua Schachter, when he sees a blog post he wrote featured on ATD in the same way as Don Clark’s post on new server systems for startups.

Fine, Schachter gets traffic and ATD gets more content. Everyone wins, right? Merlin Mann, auteur of the creative drive, isn’t so impressed by the paternalistic hand-me-down:

But, what if you’re trying to do something really different? What if the page views only really matter to you when they’re happening in front of a face you admire? What if your game is not primarily ads?... what if you’re not really selling anything but the idea that you do interesting things? What if everyone’s best guesses about your motivation are wrong, cynical, and lead to decisions that actually harm rather than compliment? What if.

Andy Baio, who did the majority of the heavy-lifting on this issue, talked to most of the concerned parties, including ATD’s Kara Swisher, who does a credible job of explaining that it was never ATD’s intention to create such confusion or to profit from others’ work, and she takes Baio’s criticism to heart.

This leads to an interesting take from Jason Kottke, a milder critic than Mann, who finds fault with the practice but not ATD’s intentions (emphasis mine):

It does suck that ATD's linking technique makes it appear as though Schachter and Haughey are in the employ of Dow Jones and that DJ has the copyright on what they wrote. ATD should make the lack of affiliation more clear. Other than that, is the ATD post really that bad? In many ways, All Things Digital's linking technique is more respectful of the author of the original piece than that of a typical contemporary blog.

This last bit is the bigger issue. It’s missing the point to blame AllThingsDigital or any other one publisher for this practice. What irks me is the culture of disingenuously appropriating other peoples’ work under the guise of supporting free culture. The more that this is done and seen as normal, the more we’ll see startups and wannabe media organizations co-opting and benefiting from others’ work.

This is an odd argument for me to make, as I’m a staunch supporter of notion of Creative Commons and freely-distributed content. But the heart of CC is not that anyone can use publicly available work at their discretion, but that we need to rework copyright law to benefit individual producers rather than big business. The producers are the ones who should decide who uses their work, and how. What’s ironic is that while the folks involved in this dispute are all, to one degree or another, beneficiaries of this philosophy, it’s big businesses who are paying lip service to the commons, all in the name of – you guessed it – big business.

It’s time for more bloggers to make it clear that publishers need their permission before reposting their work, and that such reposting should make the original location front and center. In the case of ATD, folks are simply asking for a clearer distinction between in-house and aggregated content, and to limit the wrapping of ads around third-party posts. That’s not so much to ask.