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November 20, 2009 3:56 PM

Of Twitter, Plagiarism and Online Journalism

Posted by Zach Lowe

As online journalists, we bristle when people think the standards for Web stories are lower than for those in print. In that vein, we bring you two interesting legal stories today.

In the first, the Journal Inquirer of Manchester, a family-owned paper based outside of Hartford, Conn., has filed suit against the Hartford Courant, accusing the Tribune Co. paper--the biggest in Connecticut--of lifting stories from the Journal Inquirer and publishing them under the bylines of Courant reporters. 

The suit, filed in state court, seeks damages in excess of $15,000 and accuses the Courant of violating trademark laws and unfair competition statutes. The JI's lawyer, Richard Weinstein, name partner at Weinstein & Wisser in West Hartford, says he's been disappointed with the Courant's response since the JI first pointed out the alleged plagiarism months ago.

The Courant and its parent company (Tribune) claimed the paper could act as a Connecticut news aggregator by republishing local stories on its Web site without seeking permission, Weinstein says. The company then changed its justification slightly, and this is where the online journalist in us gets riled up. According to the AP, "Tribune has defended the online aggregation process, calling it legitimate and acceptable as long it is not carried over to the print product." 

A Tribune spokeswoman declined to comment or say if they've hired counsel. Weinstein says he has not yet interacted with any lawyer representing Tribune. The Courant has already admitted to swiping the stories and apologized to the JI. That was not enough for JI's managing editor, Chris Powell, who decided to file suit this week despite the apology.

It's not the first time the JI has taken on the Tribune, Weinstein says. Several years ago, the paper sued the Tribune after the Courant refused to allow the JI to run a syndicated comic strip in its weekend editions. The Connecticut state Supreme Court ruled in the Courant's favor, finding the paper did not violate antitrust laws. 

The new plagiarism suit marks "a sad day for the Hartford Courant," Weinstein says.

In a related matter, Gregg Hartley, vice-chairman of D.C. lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, used Twitter to express his frustration with a New York Times story about a Cassidy client--the nation of Equatorial Guinea, sibling publication The National Law Journal reports.

Hartley's tweet: "How does the NY Times manage its reporter's conflicts of interest? Not well. Re: Equatorial Guinea, father was judge in controversial case."

In plain, un-Twittered English, Hartley is referring to the fact the Judge Ricardo Urbina, a federal judge in Washington and the father of NYT reporter Ian Urbina, once presided over a case in which a bank pleaded guilty to failing to report suspicious international transactions. Some of those transactions involved accounts held by higher-ups in Equatorial Guinea's government, the NLJ says.

Hartley admitted to the NLJ that he didn't check his facts about the Urbina connection before tweeting about it, though he turned out to be right.

"Here's one thing about social media," Hartley told the NLJ. "You don't always have to be right."

Seems there's a growing double standard about what is said electronically and what is said in print. And yes, we take offense.

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