Can the Curator’s Code reform the state of ‘borrowing’ in Web journalism?

The curator's code

Journalists live in a confusing era when content is haphazardly “borrowed.” With the voracious demand for news and the existence of blogs, news is churned out rapidly. When one publication breaks news, many others follow suit, and an unspoken acknowledgement exists among journalists that when necessary, attributions are provided. To break through the clutter, Maria Popova, founder of Brain Pickings, and Simon Dumenco, a columnist at Advertising Age, have created, The Curator’s Code, an attribution standard that they hope will catch on among journalists and bloggers.

It’s fair practice to attribute inspiration, quotes or excerpts from the respective sources, but the waters of journalism grow murkier and murkier. Oftentimes the original source of the breaking story gets lost among the hundreds of other outlets covering the same story. Other, more high-profile cases erupt into deep-seated resentment, as in the case where blogger MG Siegler called out Jessica Vascellaro, a Wall Street Journal reporter, for an article he felt didn’t attribute him for breaking the story.

Today, excerpting and “inspiration” are merely an ethics issue. Under the “fair use” clause, a recent Nevada Federal Court verdict ruled against a copyright infringement claim brought by Righthaven, which purchases rights to articles on behalf of online newspapers. Righthaven claimed that use of five sentence excerpts and accompanying attribution by Democratic Underground, a political news aggregator, was copyright infringement. The courts disagreed.

The Curator’s Code, as Popova and Dumenco has labeled it, are simply two Unicode characters, like ™ for trademark and © for copyright, that make the distinction between what publication inspired an article compared to what article has been excerpted.

To be exact, Popova writes:

ᔥ stands for “via” and signifies a direct link of discovery, to be used when you simply repost a piece of content you found elsewhere, with little or no modification or addition.

↬ stands for the common “HT” or “hat tip,” signifying an indirect link of discovery, to be used for content you significantly modify or expand upon compared to your source, for story leads, or for indirect inspiration encountered elsewhere that led you to create your own original content.

While it may be a tedious process to be inserting a Unicode character, which is not found on most keyboards, the duo have made its insertion available as a bookmark. All an attribution requires is a simple click of a button.

The Curator’s Code is a well-intentioned effort in developing a guideline for Web journalists, but inherently there is an issue that would step in the way of adoption. Journalists and bloggers may feel naked in the admission that their inspiration or story-lead has come from a secondary source. Every journalist wants to be the first to break the news. In reality, for every breaking story, there is only one (or sometimes a handful).

 Brian Pickings