A post on the Post

Some days the editors at Spacing have to think about things other than urban planning, graffiti or cycling infrastructure. Sometimes it’s our website server acting up, and other times it’s about figuring out how a button order has gone missing. Last week, we had to deal with theft.

Luckily, we didn’t have our office broken into (that was the week before) — we had one of our Spacing Wire posts lifted and re-printed in the National Post without permission. Associate editor Shawn Micallef wrote on our blog on June 28th about his personal experiences travelling through the city during World Cup celebrations or defeats, as well as the violence Toronto police were dealing with after each match. As we expected, the post generated a lot of comments, both for and against Shawn’s point-of-view — whenever ethnicity and culture are critiqued in any kind of way, people’s emotions can be easily enflamed.

So it was rather surprising to walk by a National Post newspaper box the next day and see a teaser on the front page of the paper that used very similar language (graphic below) to Shawn’s Spacing Wire post (“Is it cute multiculturalism or scary hooliganism?”)

It was even more shocking to flip to page A9 and see Shawn’s post re-printed on the front of the Toronto section under the feature name “Urban Scrawl.” The text that appeared in the National Post was only 60% of the original post, but it included a byline, a “commentary” tagline, and the text “National Post” at the bottom of the column. There was also bolded text that read: “The full version of this article appeared on spacingtoronto.ca/ yesterday.”

This may come as a surprise to many of you, but the National Post is actually one of the leaders when it comes to covering commentary found in the blogsphere. It may be because they cannot afford to add staff, but that’s not really an issue for us to discuss. If, for example, the National Post had written their own piece on fans’ reactions to World Cup victories and quoted Shawn’s post, all would be okay in our world. But instead, they lifted the piece, edited out parts that they wished removed, and gave Shawn a byline — all without our permission. It seems the “©2006 Spacing Publications” at the bottom of every page on this website does not hold much weight.

What concerned us was how official this all looked when it appeared in the paper. The common reader would probably assume that Shawn gave permission and agreed to the edits. With the “throw” at the end of the article, a reader could assume that Spacing has some kind of relationship with the National Post.

Another issue we had was context. How a piece focused on the sensitive topic of culture and ethnicity could be treated so lightly is beyond us. A piece like this deserves to be printed in its entirety (not just 60%) so that the author’s arguments can been fully realized. Shawn had originally quoted text from John Barber, a Globe and Mail columnist and a National Post competitor. The quotes from Barber played an integral role in shaping Shawn’s Spacing Wire post. But the National Post removed Barber’s words which dramatically warped Shawn’s point-of-view. To add a bit of intrigue to the situation, Shawn is a frequent contributor to the Globe and Mail and has consciously decided not to have anything to do with the National Post. (Shawn said joked that he was just as offended to have appeared on the same page as the SUV-loving, cycling-hating Jacob Richler).

We contacted the National Post and began to work things out. The Toronto editor was apologetic and said it was part of an “experiment” where the Post was using the blog world as a news source. We talked to our media lawyer (luckily, she writes for us too) and were encouraged to hear that we were in a good position to demand a few things. We asked that Shawn be paid more than what he would have received if he was commissioned to write the piece. We also asked for an apology that would appear on page A2 of the paper. Both requests were granted and today the Post published their apology:

Now is a good time to point out that we are not trying to do a rip-job on the Post. In fact, the whole process was quite collegial and was taken care of in a very quick manner. Lawyers did not have to call other lawyers, and we did not call each other bad names or raise our voices.

In fact, we are quite complimentary to the Post when it comes to blogs. They have taken a real interest in the opinions being shared in the new media world and are willing to report on it. It is safe to say that Spacing does not share the same political views as the Post, but we are often quoted in the Toronto section of the paper. And I do not think the re-printing was an overt attempt to steal something from us, but at the same time we need to defend ourselves. Shawn said it best in his letter to the Post editors: “Nobody at Spacing gets paid to do the Wire. We have no ads, no revenue model — all we have is our intellectual property, and we have to protect it and then make sure that when it’s stolen things are made right.”


  1. this is very interesting, and extremely useful and informative for bloggers. thanks for the post.

  2. i never really liked the national post.
    the star is my friend on days, and it’s(kinda) free version (the metro).

  3. Shameful….surprising, but not that unexpected from the Post. Just goes to show that many in traditional media still don’t view bloggers as “the media”, even a highly respected and credible publication like Spacing. They would have never ripped anything off the NY Times on one of the other news sources they regular re-print articles from. (days or weeks later I might add). Nice work getting them to pay and fess up.

  4. That is shameful!!! They have some nerve! I’m glad that Shawn got paid. The apology is great. It would be cool to have it printed up on t-shirts and sold at your next launch. I wonder if any other newspapers will comment on the scandal.

  5. “I wonder if any other newspapers will comment on the scandal.” The Star’s wonderful Antonia Zerbisias has posted about this incident on her blog (thestar.blogs.com/azerb/). I wonder if it will develop into a piece for the paper.

  6. Golly, I hope the payment was enough to justify ending this saga on such a diplomatic note. The Post have been “experimenting” with blog convergence for a couple years, and each effort has turned out more embarrassing than the last. Failing to grasp that the vast majority of quotable “amateur” web content (outside of predictable partisan rants) in this (or any) city comes from people with professional freelance writing experience is especially pathetic.

    Better they install Chinese web browsers on those new computers in Don Mills.

  7. A few months ago on this site (or maybe Torontoist?) I disparagingly commented on the Free City of Leslieville site administrator and his view on Starbucks as a harbinger of gentrification, by asking if anyone actually lived east of the DVP. Pants were crapped the next day when I saw my nonchalant blog post in the National Post!

  8. Shawn’s copyright was infringed. Nothing was stolen and there was no theft. Copyright cannot be stolen or the object of thievery.

    You have also glossed over the issue of declaring “© 2005 Spacing Publications” (which is what it actually says, not 2006); do you have a written assignment of copyright from your contributors to the corporation?

    Brad, the _Post_ was able to excerpt for review, criticism, and/or commentary under the fair-dealing provisions of the Copyright Act. One has to cite the source in such usage, which they did, if memory serves.

  9. Even putting copyright law specifics aside, it was at the very least discourteous of the Post to publish Spacing’s material without the individual author’s permission. They did one better than a lot of net pillage and actually included the author’s name plus the original source, but most crucially they edited the content, again without permission, and altering the author’s intent.

    From a more financially oriented point of view, maybe it would be less of a crime if it was merely an online repost or a fellow blogger’s comment, but the Post is a business; they sell papers. Using other people’s content for profit is not classy.

  10. While I can see how this is disturbing to Shawn, I must admit that as a blogger I find the outraged tone a bit disingenuous. Blogs had as there original premise the concept of informal sharing through Creative Commons copyright agreements, etc. Hell, if blogs stopped writing about each other and stopped ripping off content from main stream media, the medium wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining. So, I say embrace the beast and revel in the concept that turnabout is fair play. Print is beginning to play by the same rules we use…

  11. I share your two-minds regarding The Post. On the one hand, I disagree with its editorial stances. On the other hand, I find them to be experimenting more than other papers and they do try some interesting things (for better or worse, I suppose). I’m glad it all ended well, though. And hey, maybe this will get more people reading Spacing Wire!

  12. Robert, the mass of bloggers is not “ripping off” other people’s content. Certainly there are clear exceptions; what else is YouTube? Nonetheless, what bloggers do *in the main* is to review, criticize, and publish commentary based on *fragments* of the original. There are cases, as in photography or very short postings, where it is impracticable to quote only a section of the original and you have to quote the whole thing to discuss it. But anyone with copyright knowledge will see a clear difference between what the _Post_ did (reproducing copyrighted writing without permission, and also editing it in a way the author finds objectionable) and what bloggers do (quoting and responding to selected portions of original texts). The two camps *are* *not* engaged in the same enterprise.

  13. Joe, you missed my point which was said somewhat tongue-in-cheek. Without all the hard work professional reporters, columnists, and editors do many bloggers would not have access to the quality information they base their comments on. We are beginning to see a shift towards bloggers having access to the same news sources as reporters have, and that’s a good thing. But even you have to admit that blogs have long embraced the guiding philosophy that information is meant to be free. To suddenly get our backs up when newspapers adopt the same premise is to be, in my view, somewhat hypocritical. There is a symbiotic relationship between the two forms and if one or the other starts digging in its heels and threatening law suits odds are the more powerful of the two will win and the overall quality of discourse we’ve come to enjoy over the past few years will go up in a rush of litigious smoke. Of course, lawyers will be happy about that.

  14. what the Post did though was not an excerpt for “review, commentary, and/or criticism”- they republished a story, with a byline, as if it were a piece they themselves had assigned. Entirely different. It’s like publishing a book excerpt without permission (again, if they were quoting from the book, as in a standard review or commentary, that would be ok).

  15. Dear Anon, the many, many – did I say many – people who use various web technologies to “share” mp3s, for example, are certainly doing more than reviewing, commenting, and/or criticizing and yet, under Canadian law, sharing music remains fair game (has that changed yet?). BTW, you sound like a lawyer so I’ll be careful 😉 The Electronic Frontier Foundation has many good arguments for why sharing is a good thing and I won’t try to replicate them here, my point is that when a big media company decides to join the fray all of a sudden we are getting our backs up when I think we all know that without the main stream media we’d lack access to a large part of the content that gives blogging its vitality.

    I too have had content appropriated and used without permission and, for that matter, credit: Without credit it bothers me and I make a fuss. With credit I’m generally OK with it. Again, in Shawn’s case, I definitely sympathize with his alarm and, from all counts, the Post made good and learned something along the way. My point is that we should not be surprised when big media begins to do to bloggers what bloggers have long done to big media. If we all become too territorial, then something very important to the medium will be lost – I hope that does not happen although the Net Neutrality issue before the US Senate could spell the beginning of a chilling of the hot free-for-all that is the Net.

  16. Is it just me, or do I detect a “Bloggers are doing it too” sentiment to Robert Ouelette’s arguments? Do two wrongs make a right? So Bloggers excerpt and comment on mainstream media reports. Don’t you see the difference between that and ripping off an entire article without consent and changing its meaning?

    And what does file sharing have to do with ripping off a copyrighted blog post?

  17. Robert: What have you been paid for your pieces that have run in the Post? Were you writing them first and then offering them for payment, were they commissioned by an editor, or just freebies to plug your site?

  18. I also concur with Weisblott that Shawn was much too nice about it. My lawyer wouldn’t have been, and hasn’t been in the past. Being nice to people who do you wrong may be all well and good, but being nice to *corporations* that do you wrong isn’t.

  19. I love a good debate in the afternoon… I think my colleagues Shawn and Matt can appreciate my take on this and know it is a viewpoint meant in the best of spirits to spark discussion about some much bigger issues relating to copyright and the Internet. My experience has shown me that there are people who will download MP3s from the net without a second thought but who probably would complain if someone appropriated their print work in a similar fashion. Join the world of today’s musicians…

    Organizations like the EFF defend that practice because they think the music distribution system has been disintermediated by the Internet. Maybe it has and the EFF is right. If so, how does that apply to text based work like mine and Shawn’s?

    Has anyone got a good reference on this?


  20. “Dear Anon, the many, many – did I say many – people who use various web technologies to “share” mp3s, for example, are certainly doing more than reviewing, commenting, and/or criticizing and yet, under Canadian law, sharing music remains fair game”

    Publishing a ripped story in a commercial newspaper is not “sharing”.

    The moment profit steps into the game, everything changes. If you were selling copyrighted MP3s to your friends, rather than simply sharing, you’d be in a heap of trouble.

  21. “The moment profit steps into the game, everything changes. If you were selling copyrighted MP3s to your friends, rather than simply sharing, you’d be in a heap of trouble.”

    Jacob, music companies lose money (profit) when people “share” MP3 based music titles. Why is it OK for music “sharers” and not for newspapers? Now, I say that rhetorically because I know the EFF arguments but there is a generation or two of Internet users into music sharing out there so why is “sharing” print any different? And, relating to taking text out of context, why is that different to music that is applied to a video or Flash movie that the musicians haven’t approved?

  22. The cardinal difference is that the newspaper MAKES money off of each copy of the paper sold. You make no money at all when you share an MP3.

    So, the National Post was making money off of Shawn’s article. That’s what matters, no matter how small a portion it was.

    That, and they edited it, and made it look like he gave them permission. Plus, it was a *national* publication, with possibly dozens of readers, as opposed to minor sharing between a couple of people or a club newsletter. All of this combined has a massive “WTF?” factor for the person who wrote the piece.

  23. There is no parallel in Canada between downloading music (illegal – just as ripping your own legally-acquired CDs is – even though you pay through the nose for blank CDs through a private-copying levy) and reprinting an article without permission. There was at least an *attempt* to make music transfer possible. There is not a lot of leeway for reprinting an article. None, really, in the form the Tubb used.

  24. Found this on Masthead website today:

    July 12, 2006

    Post prints Spacing story without permission

    —A major national daily newspaper recently printed a story it originally found posted on a Toronto magazine’s blog. Though the writer was given a byline, the paper did not ask permission to run the story.

    Toronto-based media darling Spacing, which reports on urban public space issues, recently won gold at the National Magazine Awards for its editorial packaging.

    The National Post often reprints interesting and newsworthy blog postings in its Blog Town section with full attribution to the host site. On June 29, however, the article “Soccer fans play rough” by Shawn Micallef ran under the Urban Scrawl section, a larger-format opinion section. It was the first time a blog entry had received such treatment.

    MicallefÂ’s article originally appeared on Spacing magazineÂ’s website as part of its Spacing Wire weblog on June 28.

    Spacing publisher Matthew Blackett said both he and the author were offended that the article “appeared as part of the Post’s editorial package like it were agreed upon. It’s just wrong.”

    Micallef, who coincidentally freelances for The Globe and Mail, received no payment initially, and was not contacted in any way.

    Rob Roberts, the Post editor who decided to print the piece, said he originally planned for Spacing to be attributed at the top of the article. By the time it got to print, he said, “it had a National Post credit” and the words “The full version of this article appeared on spacingtoronto.ca/ yesterday” were at the bottom.

    Roberts said “I think I was making a mistake anyway but by the time it hit the paper, that mistake had been compounded.”

    The issue raises questions about whether blog entries are fair game as news sources, to be replicated freely as is often done online. SpacingÂ’s blog and website are marked as being under copyright.

    After Spacing contacted the Post with its grievances, an apology was printed on page A2 of the Post on July 6. Roberts said Micallef will be paid for the article.

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