If you’ve ever spent time on sites like BuzzFeed or Gawker, you’ve likely come across information pulled directly from top ranking news sites like the New York Times or the Washington Post. To some, this phenomenon is “appalling” or the “beginning of the end of media.” Some have even gone so far as to label it full on plagiarism, citing a supposed loss of traffic or revenue to the originator of said news or content.

Are these actions plagiarism, and if not, when exactly does regurgitating information become so? More importantly, what effect does modern curation have on society, and are we better off with it or without it?

What Exactly Is Plagiarism?

Plagiarism is an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own.  If you weren’t paying attention, I plagiarized that definition directly from Dictionary.com. Oh the irony.

Anyway, as you can see, true plagiarism requires three important factors:

  1. The work must use or closely imitate the language and thoughts of another author.
  2. The work must be used without the author’s authorization.
  3. The work must attempt to represent another author’s work as one’s own. (This may very well be the most important factor.)

Curation Run Rampant

Based on the dictionary definition of the word, what happens on sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed simply cannot be defined as plagiarism. While it’s true that these sites are using information gathered on legitimate news sites to create highly successful sharebait content, the nature of their content is of summarization. You may even describe them as the cliff notes of the internet.

shutterstock_76406335These sites have made a considerable living off of taking information – like a news event – and creating a quick-to-read article with a focus on imagery that highlights the most important aspects of the story. To some, this is damaging. I mean, they are simply rehashing information. Some argue that this could be the death of important publications that cannot compete with the high traffic sites that are always looking for new stories.  This brings up an important question to consider: Do sharebait sites like Buzzfeed harm the entities they derive their content from or are they actually a blessing in disguise?

Universal Parallels

When downloading became popular on the Internet, it made it a thousand times easier to get the music you wanted to hear almost instantly. Industry experts marked it as the beginning of the end of the music industry. How could a band afford to make music if people could just get it for free off of Napster? More than a decade later, we’re sitting in one of the biggest, most vibrant musical generations ever. Why is that?

The credit goes to the ease of access in music, allowing people from all over the nation and the world to hear the song they want to listen to immediately. This gave smaller, independent artists a great platform to promote their music to a broader audience. This big bang lead to countless new genres, music styles and a musical audience with far more eclectic tastes.  I would argue this was a positive change, and lo and behold, the music industry adjusted and is doing just fine.

Why couldn’t this same fate apply to the journalism industry? Millions of users who might never consider visiting or reading these high profile publications are getting highlighted on sites with broad content categories. Next to that picture of a kitten in roller skates, the “common” man is reading high-brow news or opinions. Not only are the original articles getting into the eyes of more people, they’re also getting the benefits of all the actual links back to the original—a massive benefit to these news organizations.

The Bottom Line

Business tends to always be a little hesitant about change. They’ve only just recently fully adapted to the new world of free media and the constant sharing of everything. Now they must embrace this new age of journalistic democratization.  The links to their sites, and even the rundown of their articles are being viewed by more and more people, from different walks of life. It’s no longer the accountant or the finance guy, it’s the auto mechanic and the pizza delivery dude. This is a positive. The purpose of news isn’t to stake a claim on information. It’s to disseminate that information to the masses. Sites like Gawker and Buzzfeed only help that happen.

We live in a society that has developed an urge to share things we deem important. News organizations should stop worrying about the possibility of obsolescence, and embrace the fact that the 14 year-old who is reading a brief rundown of an article they posted will one day be an adult with a family and disposable income, familiar with their brand and willing to adopt it fully. The benefits—aside from the links—won’t be instant, but they will come to fruition.

The seeds of change have already been planted and now it’s up to them to continue putting out consistent, quality material so they can one day feast on the fruits of their labor.