It’s been a rough week and I’ve really indulged tonight. The wine I am drinking is helping keep the distractions in my mind at bay. And that’s a good thing. There is a lot going on in my life and in my head. The common thread through it all is: “legacy”.
This weekend, I was reading an L.A. Times piece about the AP coming to a head with bloggers over copyright issues. This reminded me of a conversation I had at the time of J.K. Rowling’s law suit against the operator of a Harry Potter fan site. For me, this all ties in with the resurgence of interest in and discussion of organizing the wine blogging world and the legacy that will forge.
In late October of this year, American wine bloggers (and possibly others) will convene in Sonoma at the first Wine Bloggers Conference. One of the purposes of this conference is to help develop wine bloggers through organization as well as tools and resources to improve the operation of blogs. A number of topics are on the agenda, but credibility is one of the most nagging. The path to credibility and even the need for it seem to be the most argued aspects of this issue.
Wine bloggers are poised to not just define, but entrench a new genre of writing in the greater American consciousness. What they agree to do at the WBC will be pivotal in defining their medium, and establishing its credibility. I have written previously about what I think are the top three issues of concern facing wine bloggers and the need for pooling our resources and efforts. Jeff Lefevre, at Googdgrape.com, later wrote about a similar concept, which seems to bundle these two concepts.
Towards the goal of strengthening credibility, the Wine Bloggers Conference site includes some good documentation, including a “Canon of Ethics“. I can really get behind these ideas, though I think they need more elaboration. One that piques my interest reads as follows:
“Honesty We shall always maintain Honesty and Fairness in our posting. We shall never engage in plagiarism. We shall support all applicable copyright laws. We shall provide links to any website we reference or quote. We shall publicly correct any errors or misinformation in our posts.”
Many bloggers argue that they do not need to be held to account to these standards. The cornerstone of the argument is that blogs are the grass root, enthusiast voices and should not be constrained by the imposition of any regulations. They argue that blogging is a peer-to-peer mode of communication and should not be made to observe journalistic standards.
The implications of this part of the code of ethics, however, go beyond veracity, accuracy, journalistic professionalism and trustworthiness. One has to think about intellectual property rights. Call me a cynic, but there is no such thing as a pure altruist and anybody blogging about wine is not doing it solely for the public good. While the wine bloggers’ efforts will serve the wine industry, the bloggers themselves hope to monetize their content. The content, then, becomes product and, as such, is subject to both integrity standards and to protection.
In the blogging world, authors take a lot of shortcuts for the sake of time and they do not always fact check or attribute. There is a lot of gray area for what is common (or fair use) information, and when it becomes IP. In her lawsuit (link above), Rowling contends that unless her intellectual property is protected “…anyone [can] lift an author’s work and present it as their own…” I think that more than any form of media or communication, the bloggosphere is a set up for situations like these. That could be applied to transgressions by bloggers as well as against bloggers.
A good case study which illustrates the issue of intellectual property is the abundance of websites which aggregate wine notes and articles from different sources. I have seen this done with a few of my reviews on a few sites. These “aggregator” sites are made to be low effort and low maintenance for the owners/operators – who then hope to build traffic and monetize though ads. I have no contractual arrangement with them. I have no knowledge that they use my content (save for the results of regular Google alerts). I never had communication with them nor have I allowed them to use my content and I do not receive any royalties from them. I bought the wine or received it as a sample, directly in result of the brand I built, its visibility and standing. All of that cost me time and money. Should someone else parasitically profit from my efforts with a few clicks a mouse – especially if I do not even benefit by way of attribution?
Let’s turn the table and look at the scenario of a blogger creating a work which compiles information created by others and posted elsewhere. It could be argued that a compendium of wine terminology (sourced or derived from multiple wine websites and books), for example, becomes the compiler’s IP by virtue of the time invested into compiling, rewriting, producing and publishing. I agree with this line of logic. However, well-paid attorneys are quite capable of arguing that such a compilation is derivative and constitutes plagiarism. One of the tasks facing wine bloggers in October is one of defining what is, and what is not, fair use content and when a work becomes derivative or plagiarism. Along with that, comes the need to understand the resulting type and level of exposure to liability.
There is one big gray zone relevant to the discussion of accuracy and veracity: It is often easier to incorporate existing winery website content or a press release into an article or a review than to do some “homework” and offer unique, original, unbiased and accurate information. And so it is my greatest fear that wine bloggers will run the risk of becoming outlets for marketing copy. Wineries won’t see this as plagiarism or derivative work, because they’ll be getting free publicity. However, I am concerned that by not applying critical filters to material they pass on, bloggers will suffer in the credibility department.
We’re defining a new genre but we also have to establish some standards for it. That has been the natural history of any movement or profession. Bloggers are, on average, of a younger generation and, for the most part, they possess a certain degree of idealism. Their fresh enthusiasm has not given way to jaded indifference, yet. Their idealism, then, should fuel the drive to establish wine blogging as a respected and credible medium. Sure, everyone wants to advance their brand and profit from their hobby, but with influence come responsibility and accountability. Wine blogging can take any shape and tone in the future and our legacy will be the direction we give this budding medium.
All these thoughts are only musings until one agrees that blogs are the next mainstream of media and information exchange. It is inevitable, then, that bloggers will come to a crossroads and a critical decision will have to be made. That decision will have to do with how we treat our content. To paraphrase Gary Vaynerchuk: we must think “legacy before currency“.
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