Try as you might, there’s just no way of treating the Globe and Mail as the David to Sheila Fraser’s Goliath.
Canada’s national newspaper was up in arms on Thursday when the Auditor-General ordered it to remove a portion of her most recent report which the paper had embedded on its Web site using Scribd, a popular social media tool for sharing documents. In a story called “Why can’t you read it here?” John Ibbitson outlined the Globe’s position:
The Globe prefers to use Scribd because it makes documents accessible with fewer clicks and less hassle. Also — and this is entirely a case of self-interest — you don’t have to leave The Globe’s website to read the document. We like to keep you with us for as long as possible.
The latter point is the big one for the Globe. While it is casting itself as a public crusader, trying to bring value information to a public that wants it, the newspaper is like all other media organizations, including this one, trying to make sure Web visitors have no reason to leave. (Full disclosure: I wrote a technology column for the Globe and Mail for three years and remain friendly with one of its editors.)
The link to the Auditor-General’s site, which contains the full report, does not, in fact, involve many more clicks or hassle. It is well laid-out and can be easily navigated by even novice Web users. The PDF option allows for simple viewing and printing. There is no inherent benefit to Scribd in this case but one real danger: that the document could be downloaded, modified or altered. Like many large enterprises, the Auditor-General’s office prefers PDF because it allows some security in terms of version control. This is a reasonable practice which most IT managers I know would endorse.
Could someone scrape the report off the site manually, upload to Scribd and let everyone have at it? Sure, but not many people are going to bother, including the Globe, which only did it with one chapter. Contrary to the Globe’s earlier insinuations, the Auditor-General was not demanding that anyone wanting to link to the report request written permission. I can assure you, though, if you wanted to cute and paste a Globe and Mail story onto your own, for-profit Web site without written permission you would have Globe and Mail reprint service staff moving much faster than Sheila Fraser’s staff.
Scribd is a great tool for publishing your own work, but not necessarily someone else’s copyrighted material. To complain that the government is somehow throwing its weight around in this instance, however, is hopelessly knee-jerk. This isn’t just an everyday government file. It’s a report that carries serious influence among policymakers, the civil service and the public. If steps can be taken to minimize it being tampered with – while still allowing full access – they should be taken. I obviously support freedom of the press. That doesn’t mean we can be free with how we republish or repurpose someone else’s work.