Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Rue Morgue's Traffic Violation Continues

There's etiquette and then there's "netiquette" -- the proper way to act and operate online. One of the things that the people behind a website should not do is try to subvert traffic from another site to theirs. It's one thing to cross-post and backlink but it's quite another to poach traffic outright.

In the world wide web, content is king. I will admit that I don't get a whole lot of traffic to this site and that's because I barely write anything new here. I'm sporadic with my updates and they are few and far between. Worse, most of my posts are pretty boring. However, they are mine. I take the time to write them.

What I don't do is go out to another site, copy their posts, give a little link back to them, and then go out to my social media channels and point people over to this site rather than the original source material. That's pretty shady, right?

That's exactly what I've seen going on lately with the fine folks over at Rue Morgue.

Normally, web traffic should go like this:

I see an article or announcement that's interesting and then I go out to my social media feed and post a link to that page/site. I'm spreading the word about something and perhaps prompting a discussion of the topic on my Facebook wall.

What Rue Morgue has been doing lately (at least since around June that I've been able to find) is wholesale copying articles from sites, putting them on their site, and directing traffic to themselves. This isn't plagiarism, per se. They give the author of the original article credit but they don't get permission from the original website to reprint.

Rue Morgue is taking away traffic from original websites who rely on those hits for revenue to hire the writers responsible for content that Rue Morgue is lifting. Rue Morgue isn't paying the writers that they're reprinting. For some reason they seem to think that this is fine for the web. I hope they never consider this to be fair practice in the print version of their magazine.

Here's the flow of this Rue Morgue set-up:

A real world example is "their" recent posting "Lost ending of Stanley Kubrick's THE SHINING explained" from July 10, 2015. Gwynne Watkins wrote the original piece for Yahoo Movies and Rue Morgue copied and pasted her entire piece onto their site. True, it was credited to Ms. Watkins (as if she is working for Rue Morgue) and there's a link (below the fold of the page) to Yahoo Movies but this still feels shady as Rue Morgue then posted the link to their article on their Facebook page so that traffic would go back to their website.

That means that Rue Morgue gets the hits. Rue Morgue's web ads show. Rue Morgue looks like they're providing content. Rue Morgue gets to save on paying writers while the real writer and original site get none of the benefits.

Yes, getting an article reprinted on Rue Morgue's website may be great exposure for an aspiring writer but so is just sharing that article via the Rue Morgue social media feed. Diverting viewers to the Rue Morgue site is a boon to Rue Morgue itself. They have ads at rue-morgue.com to be clicked, merchandise to be sold, and magazines to push. They're getting free content and not paying a dime to anyone. It's not a win/win situation for the writer/magazine as the writer isn't getting anything for their work except the effluviant "exposure" while Rue Morgue is driving up their web traffic and, possibly, sales. Essentially, they're making money off the work of other people and not paying them. It's not like they're abusing unpaid interns but they're taking from other writers and websites without any permission and with just a cursory link and credit.

A writer like Gwynne Watkins doesn't need "exposure" via Rue Morgue. She's a professional writer with upper-tier magazines on her curriculum vitae. She's not an amateur blogger who might take an unauthorized reprint as a compliment.

When asked about this practice, Ms. Watkins says:

"I'm not familiar with this site but I do have a problem with any website or publication reprinting an article of mine, in full, without my permission or the permission of the original publisher. It's one thing to excerpt or summarize, and link back; I consider that a compliment. But this amounts to stealing content, and it's unethical."

Not all of the Rue Morgue website posts are complete lifts. They often will excerpt pieces from an article on another site and provide a link to read the full text. This is the more standard practice. Yet, this still isn't completely kosher.

On July 9, 2015 Rue Morgue posted on their Facebook page: "We countdown the creepiest MAGIC: THE GATHERING cards of all time". However, the "we" was not Rue Morgue but James Whitbrook of i09. Mr. Whitbrook doesn't get credited on Rue Morgue. The article is credited to "Staff" on the site. There is a sentence after the lead paragraph that plainly states "James Witbrook of io9.com has compiled a list of the all-time creepiest magic cards, complete with artwork and blurbs, and they are pretty damned spectacular." Yes, Rue Morgue misspelled Mr. Whitbrook's name.

Mr. Whitbrook's original article included 12 cards/descriptions. Rue Morgue reprinted seven of those with a link back to io9 at the end of the piece. This is close to proper netiquette save for the misspelling of the author's name and the post that says "We" as if Rue Morgue was the source. How hard would it have been to say, "James Whitbrook of io9 counts down the creepiest MAGIC: THE GATHERING cards of all time"?

That pesky "we" creeps into their Facebook posts like "Sir CHRISTOPHER LEE: legend of screen and Gentleman of Horror, we bid you adieu... " for an article they reprinted from The Guardian (it says that it comes "courtesy of The Guardian, as if The Guardian granted them permission to reprint?) and "From the Flaming Wheel to Getting Tossed Onto Knife Mountains, we've got the craziest punishments in Hell!" in which the "we" was actually Rob Bricken at io9.

This isn't a case of a link or two. A quick look at the Rue Morgue Facebook feed over the last few weeks reveals numerous instances that go beyond simple reprints of posters, YouTube videos, or images from other sites. Yes, some are simply copying a few paragraphs as a "teaser" (common practise for a lot of sites) but here's a couple of the more egregious violations like The Shining article:

Charlie Hintz, who penned the Haunted Bunk Bed article is pragmatic about his situation:

I wasn't even aware of the Rue Morgue article. Not sure how I missed it.

I have mixed feelings on this subject. From a writer's perspective, of course I want my articles to be read. However, the reason I carve time out of my busy day to write around a day job, activities with my children, etc. is because I have bills to pay. I rely on the content I create for my websites to help support my family.

When my content is published on another commercial website without my knowledge or consent, the benefits are marginal at best. Generally, though not always, a link to my original article is included, which may provide a trickle of new website visitors for a brief period of time, and as well as a citation helpful in building authority for SEO purposes.

In the end, however, Rue Morgue benefits much more from my work than I do as it fits into their overall content marketing strategy.

This situation of reprinting is not limited to Rue Morgue and is something that I had hoped had gone the way of the internet Wild West. Yet, this damming of internet traffic flow still happens fairly regularly either under claims of "remixing" or "fair use".

If this problem isn't limited to Rue Morgue, why pick on them? Here are a few reasons:

  1. It seems that this is a fairly recent practice so it's not too late to pull all of these reprinted pieces, delete the Facebook posts (or change them to point to their original sources) and apologize for this practice.
  2. As a print publication of many years, Rue Morgue should know better than taking other people's work and reprinting it.
  3. Rue Morgue can re-evaluate their situation and hire real web writers rather than cribbing content from other sites and doing a bait & switch to make it seem like their own.

Let's hope that this piece shames Rue Morgue into blowing up those dams and reestablishing the proper flow of traffic while encouraging them to realize that writing for the web is as important as writing for the pages of their venerable publication.

Your move, Rue Morgue.

Update: 9/15/2015

It seems that Rue Morgue's move was to keep going down the same path.

Here's a page on their site: Read about the legends surrounding New Jersey's SHADES OF DEATH ROAD posted on September 7, 2015. That is a complete direct lift of The Cursed Death Road of New Jersey by Brent Swancer.

When contacted for comment about having his article completely taken and re-used by Rue Morgue, Mr. Swancer said, "I had no idea that my article was being used in such a way. Thank you for bringing it to my attention. I think this sort of behavior is disheartening. I spend a lot of time and effort researching, compiling, and writing my articles. They are a labor of love. So to see them picked up and then not linked to my site, in a way in which I can not get the proper traffic or respect for the site that I am on, is quite sad. I have seen worse. I have seen some of my work wholesale plagiarized without any credit to me at all. But this is almost as bad.

"I don't mind if someone wants to link to my articles. I welcome it. However, they should do so in a manner that is keeping with how things are usually done, where we can get due revenue and respect for our efforts. This sort of behavior quite frankly makes it hard to be a writer on the Internet and I wish they would not do this.

"I do suppose that there will always be those scavengers without the talent, means, or desire to put in the effort, who would rather just pick up others' work and subject it to this kind of treatment for their own gains and it is discouraging. It does nothing but make them a little money, robbed from us, and at the same time lessens the quality of articles out there due to discouraging the most talented people from wanting to put in the work to put their articles out there. This sort of behavior is only detrimental.

"I am not so much angry as very exasperated and disappointed. I was quite shocked to see this and would request that the site in question either goes about these things in the proper way or ceases such activities."

What's the story, Rue Morgue? Why do you feel that you're above it when it comes to picking up articles and placing them on your site? Is it okay to just start taking articles from the Rue Morgue site and passing them off as your own? Maybe people should all pick their favorite Rue Morgue piece and re-blog it with a little link back to the original but say it was written by "Staff".