Automattic Pulls A Customer’s Posts After Plagiarist Claims Copyright Infringement [Update]

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A blog called RetractionWatch has been hit by a DMCA copyright notice from an Indian  website with a tendency to plagiarize, which claims ten posts about a disgraced doctor – all of them copied from RetractionWatch – were actually its own property. The posts are about Duke University cancer researcher named Anil Potti who has had 19 papers retracted or corrected during his career.

The posts detailing Potti’s problems over the past two years reappeared on a site called NewsBullet.in (they are now gone). This is nothing new – plagiarists steal blog content all the time – but what galls is Automattic’s reaction to the takedown notice. A Google search for Potti’s name brings up most of RetractionWatch’s articles which, obviously, are now missing.

The notice details all of the offending content – all of it about Potti – and notes that NewsBullet.in is “a famous news firm in India”. The ‘editor’ writes that “all the news we publish are individually researched by our reporters from all over India and then we publish them on our site and our news channel.” A brief perusal of the site would find that most of the content is plagiarized or, at the very least, taken from non-original news feeds.

The editor of RetractionWatch, Ivan Oransky, notes that Potti hired a reputation manager and it’s possible that this scorched-earth censorship may be associated.

Potti was a cancer researcher at Duke University who was found to be falsifying his resume and his research. Potti appeared on 60 Minutes in a segment about his cancer research. His claims were later found to be false. He is now at the University of North Dakota.

It’s abundantly clear that Automattic is in the wrong here and that this overzealous copyright protection is doing their customers harm. UPDATE – David W. Boles notes that this is a DMCA issue rather than a Automattic issue and says that it’s better for trolls to pick and choose their targets – and for Automattic to make individual posts unavailable – than to have an entire site torn down. “The DMCA policy is to remove it while it is inspected,” wrote a Automattic spokesperson. Cold comfort, obviously.

[Editor’s note: Automattic’s policy is quite similar to other large web content hosting service providers, including YouTube and Facebook. The DMCA requires them to remove content within 24 hours of receiving complaints, and it’s up to the accused party to rectify the issue by making a counterclaim.  “If we didn’t, we would lose DMCA safe harbor protection and become liable for every piece of content anyone uploads to our system,” CEO Toni Schneider notes in the comments below.

John Biggs, like many others, didn’t find the result fair in this case. The problem is finding a better solution. TechCrunch, a WordPress VIP customer, would certainly be unhappy if Auttomatic pulled a bunch of our posts without asking. In a follow-up discussion with the company, I confirmed that there are safeguards in place to defend against spurious claims and to protect well-verified clients. One problem is that it’s quite expensive for service providers to police every single piece of content uploaded. Another is that they’d be forced to take the role of judge in each claim, which isn’t necessarily their role. The DMCA, for all of its brokenness, provides at least some protection for both parties while avoiding a massively bureaucratic solution, and costs that might put many beloved service providers out of business. – Eric Eldon]