Where Credit’s Due?
In recent months, in widely varied contexts, bloggers have expended a non-trivial number of words trying to divine a proper citation policy for writing on the ‘net. It’s the kind of activity that ought to set law review articles editors’ hearts-a-flutter, were they not engaged in the project of
footnote generation editing and studying. See, e.g., the Domenech controversy (instigation; synthesis; resolution; Malkin’s moral: “the determined moonbat hordes . . . painfully . . . are right.”); the AP-citation brouhaha; the Ribstein–Baude discussion on citation as a norm/quality warranty; and yesterday’s discussions about Prawfs’/OrinKerr’s “need” to credit Xoxohth for their early posting of the ’07 USNews Rankings
Are all of these situations the same? What distinguishes them?
Categorically, we’re talking here about four different types of nonattribution: (1) amateur v. professional direct copying (Domenech); (2) professional-amateur non-attribution of story ideas (the AP problem); (3) amateur-amateur traffic diversion (the USNews problem); and (4) amateur-amateur non-attribution of story ideas (Ribstein-Baude). In each of these areas, the primary enforcement mechanism of a pro-citation norm is reputational/shaming, which can range from severe (1) to mild (4).
In terms of “wrongfulness,” I find the fourth category the most intuitively troublesome. But further reflection suggests that my reaction is related to thinking of blogging as a form of scholarship, i.e., contribution to generalizable knowledge. Since I don’t want ordinary blogging to require IRB approval, I probably ought to reconsider my intuition. I find the third category – diversion of traffic – to be almost entirely benign. The USNews context in particular is an easy case: Prawfs and OrinKerr both are “paying” for the diversion by taking on a greater (but still negligible) risk of action by USNews, a risk that is clearly higher for the blog than it is for the distributed discussion board. The first case is also easy, the other way, because it is akin to a misappropriation problem. The second case is the hardest. I don’t know exactly why the AP should have to credit the sources of its ideas. Doing so would impose substantial costs on news gatherers. Would they have to disclose when a cab driver suggested an article about the rising prevalence of potholes? A tip from the barber that the President’s hairstyle has changed? There has to be some latitude for journalists to synthesize others’ work without believing that credit is due. The extent of that latitude is, I suppose, a question for journalist ethics courses.