The death of journalism

Earlier this week, I spent half a day sitting in a district court.

The district courts can be worthwhile if you’re a freelance journalist, but they’re a bit of a lottery too. Get in well with some of the staff, and you’ll get a tip off if there’s something interesting coming up.

On Monday, I got lucky. The accused hit another car in a car park, left the scene, and was tracked down thanks to CCTV footage. But his surname was Happy, and he worked for a company called Tender Loving Care, so judge Desmond Zaidan cracked a joke.

“How can I sentence someone to prison who works for a company called Tender Loving Care?”. And whose name is Mr Happy?” he asked, as he considered sentence.

Three newspapers printed the story. In due time, they will pay me.

But since Tuesday, I’ve found the same story on three websites, in Ireland, the UK and the USA.

I’m a freelance. I retain copyright on the stories I’ve written. But there’s not much I can do if someone outside the jurisdiction does a cut and paste. And if I can’t get paid, why work?

Newspapers aren’t just dying because people read online.

By Gerard Cunningham

Gerard Cunningham occupies his time working as a journalist, writer, sub-editor, blogger and podcaster, yet still finds himself underemployed.


  1. This might be a naive question (ironically naive, given my profession, though only superficially so), but would you not consider suing the bastards? Esp. in the US&A, copyright law is severe (too severe in some ways), and a contigency fee arrangement ethically acceptable.

  2. In relation to your original article, isn’t it possible the judge just made a casual off-hand remark and that it had no bearing on whatever sentence he finally delivered? I’m sure judges are entitled to make an occasional quip or two.

  3. Mark, if you want to tell me where I can find a lawyer willing to take the risk of suing a news magazine based in New York, I’d be glad to take your advice.
    Paul, I have no argument with what the judge said. I have an issue with the fact that my copyright was not respected.
    Allan, part of the problem is I’m not sure where the blame lies. I suspect that in more than one case, the newspaper assumed they had the right to sell on the story to other outlets, despite the fact it was clearly identified as ‘© Gerard Cunningham’. Or they may simply not have noticed or cared.

  4. Not really my field, Ger, so I’d be ill-suited to recommend any names. But if the matter is as open and shut as you describe, the lawyer should have little risk. I don’t imagine you registered the copyright with the US Library of Congress – not needed to establish copyright, but needed to have the option of demanding statutory damages and payment of attorneys’ fees by the infringer – so you’d be limited under US law to recovering your own damages (could be hard to prove) and confiscating the infringer’s profits from the publication that infringed your rights (should be as much a cakewalk as these things ever are).

  5. @Mark, There’s still the itsy-bitsy problem of me being in Ireland, and having to go through a US court. Plus I’m not sure if the person I need to complain against is the US web publisher, or an Irish company which mistakenly sold on the story without my consent.

  6. So, I sent off letters to the offending websites, pointing out my ownership of the story they had republished, invoicing details, all that good stuff.
    Update: The amateur blogs have removed my story, thus acknowledging their error. The professional news websites have ignored my communications.

    And the mainstream media complains about the reckless disregard for copyright on the web?

  7. Hi,

    Great story but depressing outcome about the cut and paste merchants.


  8. @Brian,

    Part of my problem is, I’m not sure who is at fault. Let’s assume that I sell a story to Company A, and it appears on the website of Company B. Maybe Company B cut and pasted the story, in which case they are at fault. But maybe Company A sold on the story, either not knowing or not caring that they had no right to do so, and Company B is innocent. To date, I haven’t established which is the case, despite several attempts to contact the relevant people in both Company A and Company B.

    On the courts in general, like I say its a bit of a lottery. The district courts can be fruitful, but are usually pretty well covered by the local provincial press. The provincial circuit courts are neglected, but not always profitable. Who is able to spend two weeks covering a trial on a minor drugs charge, when the payoff is four or five pars on page 17? That said, the guilty pleas can provide decent stories on occasion.

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