CNN "geek anthem" post is implausibly similar to scrappy blogger's earlier article

Victor Pineiro put a lot of work into a funny, popular post about the "top ten geek anthems of all time." Shortly after, CNN ran an extremely similar article, which replicated many of Victor's picks and had extremely similar copy. But the CNN article didn't credit Victor with the inspiration.

Victor doesn't think that this is a copyright violation (I think he's right), but it does smack of plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty. It's possible that CNN was inspired to write the extremely similar piece at the same time, but the more likely explanation is that CNN just ripped Victor off. Victor couldn't find any contact info for the author and when he posted a question about it to the article's comment thread, it was rejected.

We often hear big media companies talk about how bloggers rip them off by posting fragments of their articles, but there's a well-developed practice of linking and crediting in blogging that often doesn't go the other way, and it sucks that media companies don't play nice in link economy.


Had the article I'd penned been something more general or topical, I wouldn't have batted an eye. But I'd researched the topic before writing the post, and found almost nothing on geek anthems- and no articles at all in the past few years. It was a niche I was excited to fill. The post I wrote did well, getting picked up by Veronica Belmont and BuzzFeed among others, and garnering close to 20,000 visits at last count. Not Gawker numbers, but for our young blog it was a nice spike that's resulted in substantially more regulars. CNN's article, however, stopped the post's momentum dead in its tracks.

Talking over my discovery with a prominent journalist buddy, she told me it was a common occurrence. More and more she noticed big media borrowing unique topics and ideas from viral blog posts in the hopes that they'd go unnoticed. With all the recent search-term omniscience being developed, it's getting harder to hide that sort of thing. And what about the little guy?

The real issue here is search rank. For young blogs hoping for traction, SEO is king, and knock-off articles pose a much greater threat to scrappy bloggers than old media. We scramble to find topical/SEO niches and plant our flags with posts like "Top Ten Depressing Songs" or "How to Prepare For a Steampunk Prom", using each as a foothold to climb higher up Mt. Blogosphere. But a copycat article by one of the big guys immediately supplants that flag, and incinerates it with the ensuing ripple effect. In this case, CNN's article wrested the top "geek anthems" search spot from mine, and the flood of blogs linking to it filled up the rest of the first page.

Copycat Articles Trample Bloggers: PWND By CNN (Thanks, Victor!)

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  1. I noticed the same thing yesterday, with this Times article on coffee roasters in NYC: http://nyti.ms/c1Ipnq

    Not only did they copy this blog’s entry (and the map they made) http://bit.ly/aS4ys9, but the author left out Porto Rico and Oren’s — criminal, especially since Porto has been roasting beans in New York for over 100 years.

  2. It’s especially egregious because once it’s listed on a MSM like CNN, it’s lost all it’s outlaw cachet and the list is now invalid.

    EricT, sadly that’s exactly what you don’t want to do, as the CNN ad revenue shoots up and it goes even higher in search ranking.

  3. What else do you expect from a TV network that reads Twitter feeds live on the air as though it was real news?

  4. In a time when a plethora of people are getting publicly popped for plagiarism, I hope someone reads this and finds a way to bring this to the attention of the other noteworthy news networks.

  5. It’s my understanding plagiarism no longer exists. It is now “emulative creative repurposing”.

  6. @Cory if you wanna help Victor fighting back CNN you should link the words “geek anthems” to his blog and ask everyone who got a blog to do the same…

    it would be a nice test!

  7. Plagiarism and intellectual dishonesty? That’s kind of a harsh charge against this CNN guy given the evidence:
    1. The lists share only three songs. Given the theme, this really isn’t a lot of overlap
    2. If you google “top geek songs” numerous similar lists come up. While most of them don’t use the word “anthems” the overall concept is hardly unique.
    3. There are really no similar passages in the two posts, and they are written in completely different styles.
    4. The CNN post is an interesting contribution to the “geek songs” meme in its own right. It’s too bad Victor’s post got displaced from the top of the search results, but that happens to every popular blog post sooner or later.
    5. The internet is huge. The odds of similar posts/stories appearing within a few weeks of each other on popular topics like geek songs or best coffee shops in NYC are very high, even if no copying is taking place, just because people are frequently posting about these things.

  8. It does seem likely that CNN got the idea from Victor, and should have credited him, but it doesn’t look like plagiarism to me. Those side-by-side comparisons that Victor gives don’t show language being lifted, just ideas. And even then it seems possible that CNN got only the idea for the article from Victor, and that the similar passages reflect what many people would come up with if they tried to make this particular Top 10 list.

  9. Three identical artists in two lists with the same subject matter constitutes plagiarism?

    I’m all for sticking it to the man, but that seems like a bit of a stretch. Seems someone is just grumpy they aren’t the top hit on google search results anymore and is looking for some sympathy.

  10. Of course CNN had to rip the article off. To them (and their core audience) geeks are just a cute and trendy little demographic that’s worth a bit of money and is occasionally fun to gawk at.

  11. Someone took an idea for a subject matter and wrote their own piece (I’m sorry…they were two entirely different pieces)–there is nothing wrong with that.

    Copycating has always been a part of (and beneficial to) our writing and creative culture.

    And, using an idea for subject matter doesn’t merit a shout out (although it certainly would have been a more gallant and intelligent act to do so in this case because of the uniqueness of the idea).

    It’s similar using a photo you took yourself of an object as apposed to using a photo someone else took. There are going to be similarities because you’re using the same subject, but the process is your own.

    What is careless here, though, is to use a forum as big as BoingBoing to label the CNN author as intellectually dishonest. Boingboing is a big stick, Cory, watch where you’re swinging this thing.

  12. Actually, I’ve been experiencing this same phenomenon today. A local newspaper did an interview with me, and included my photo on the cover. There was also a photo of a vintage mic in the background, as sort of a photo illustration. I thought I was terribly clever at finding the stock image, but soon realized that there were variations of this image all over the place– so I started chasing them down, trying to see where it would all lead. I ended up posting it as a blog entry, just because it all became so ridiculous!

  13. How ridiculous! Big media is crying rivers about how blogs are destroying their industry (eh-hum, profits) yet they continue to pull this crap. A much better solution would be to just give acknowledgment and a link to the blog. This would benefit everyone as it would encourage even more blogging to get their name in the national spotlight and big media would have an endless supply of material. They just have to filter through the garbage and fact check! (There’s an idea for journalism!) Tosh.0 is already doing something similar to this. It is much more convenient to get the highlights rather than surfing through all the social sights. Big media had better adapt or they will fail.

  14. Guys, go and RTFA before you get upset at CNN.

    The blogger is clearly a self-important pompous ass who thinks CNN is ripping off his story, when in reality there’s hardly any similarity whatsoever.

    1. I agree with the galactic overlord. There are some great examples of blatant internet plagiarism out there, but this isn’t one of them. The real irony is that he’s whining about CNN cashing in on his thing when his thing is a top ten list.

  15. Pompous ass? I think this was his point:

    “Now I’m not contending that one owns a topic, much less a top ten list, that most ubiquitous of blog formats. And in this case, the CNN article was well-written and despite its brow-arching similarities, interesting in its own right. But Google doesn’t sort searches by originality, and once you’ve been toppled from the top of a niche search, you’ve disappeared.”

  16. ugh, and they even used that lame “of all time” line in the title. gross.

    i’ll stick with the onion, thanks

  17. The real issue here is that there is no inspiration in thinking up a top ten list. OMG! My top ten list idea was poached! The horror.

    It’s like announcing you’ve been gobsmacked with the concept of putting a slice of cheese between two pieces of bread.

  18. Whether this is plagiarism or not, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the organization. You think that this was a big decision at CNN to run this one piece? You think they check the whole Internet for every article they run to make sure they are clear?

    Think of it this way. Your job is to write articles for CNN. You don’t really care that much about it. You just want to eat food and pay rent. It’s Friday. You want to go home. You’re tired. You’re browsing the web. You find something interesting. You mix it up a little bit. Your editor is happy. A fine day’s work. Yet… this is frowned upon.

    Meanwhile here I am a programmer. I’ve got some bugs to fix. It’s Friday. I want to go home. I’m tired. I’m browsing the web. Reading boingboing. I search for the answer to my problem. I find some code. I copy past it. Touch it up a little bit. Manager is happy. A fine days work. And this is perfectly normal, no problem.

    Welcome to the 21st century. This is how it works.

  19. Whether this is plagiarism or not, I don’t think it’s fair to blame the organization. You think that this was a big decision at CNN to run this one piece? You think they check the whole Internet for every article they run to make sure they are clear?

    Think of it this way. Your job is to write articles for CNN. You don’t really care that much about it. You just want to eat food and pay rent. It’s Friday. You want to go home. You’re tired. You’re browsing the web. You find something interesting. You mix it up a little bit. Your editor is happy. A fine day’s work. Yet… this is frowned upon.

    Meanwhile here I am a programmer. I’ve got some bugs to fix. It’s Friday. I want to go home. I’m tired. I’m browsing the web. Reading boingboing. I search for the answer to my problem. I find some code. I copy past it. Touch it up a little bit. Manager is happy. A fine days work. And this is perfectly normal, no problem.

    Welcome to the 21st century. This is how it works.

  20. Even if CNN attributed the concept or inspiration to Victor with some link back action it wouldn’t help him out much with his complaint that he has been “toppled from the top of a niche search, you’ve disappeared”.

  21. Not sure I see the charge of plagarism here (which, as a recently graduated student, is a major word to throw around). It’s *possible* the CNN writer got his idea from the Popten author, and IF so, it would have been generous to link back, perhaps even weave it into the article (framing the CNN list as a “counterpoint”, perhaps). But plagarism? Jeebus. Let’s try and leave some gravity to that charge.

    Not to say the author’s charge isn’t necessarily true, but the list of “similar passages” is pretty freaking tenuous and doesn’t help his case at all. Pointing out that they both lament they can’t include more than 10 in a Top 10 is a Top 10 List TROPE, yet he cites it as further evidence that CNN ripped him off. And MC Frontalot is like a byword for “geek music.”

  22. He had a bit of my sympathy up to the words “SEO”. So what you’re saying is you’re just chasing after page views, which is no different than CNN’s chase after ratings? And you’re doing it the same way they do, by finding every bullshit story there is (“balloon boy”, “top 10 most depressing songs!”)? To quote the great Malcolm Tucker, fuck the fuck off!

  23. all i can say is that whoever drew that Frontalot album art heading the Popten article is probably ruggedly handsome, and impossibly smart and witty.

  24. I see nothing wrong with the CNN article in this instance. Yes, it was clearly inspired by the article from the blog, but the CNN writer created his own original piece – his own interpretation of another persons idea. That is more or less how creativity has worked through most of human history. If, as an artist, I was unable to borrow ideas from other artist, I would be pretty much dead in the water. And besides, isn’t this sort of interpretation and fair use of ideas something that the blogosphere defends all of the time.

  25. Going back a little bit, I blogged three years with the sports blog network SBNation, and ESPN stole the ideas and stories of bloggers along the network with regularity.

    No longer connected, but I can’t imagine ESPN has stopped the practice. Why would they?

  26. At the local level, the practice of newspapers and TV stations repurposing story ideas from other media is a common and accepted practice. In fact, a national organization of features editors compile a “beg, borrow, steal” collection of story ideas that are willingly submitted by editors with the explicit understanding that other news organizations will use them. The difference is that these ideas are usually spun with a local angle, creating a story that’s unique in the details if not the concept.

    The point I’m trying to make is that this is an old media practice, done before a reader in Tulsa could read articles from a weekly paper in Palm Beach the day they’re posted. It just shows that no matter how many interactive bells and whistles a MSM Web site has, the thinking is still very much entrenched in the 20th century.

  27. To be honest, the original list doesn’t include Jonathan Coulton and is thus invalid anyway.

  28. …This sort of thing has been going on for a *long* time. My own CIP occurred back in 2003, during the compilation of the Columbia Loss FAQ. No sooner than an update to the FAQ was posted both on the website and to usenet, the content would be Copied and Pasted to the Orlando Sentinel’s Columbia Disaster webpage, as well as pasted into related front page articles. Not *once* did they cite the FAQ as their source, and refused to answer any e-mails regarding their obvious plagiarism. Especially after we deliberately threw in some easily detectable bogus data which they blindly C&P’d without even fact checking.

    So again, this sort of plagiarism is commonplace amongst the Fourth Estate. The only real question is just what the frack can be done about it besides nothing…

  29. #28 and others.
    There is no charge of plagiarism. First line of the second paragaph:

    “Victor doesn’t think that this is a copyright violation”

    He just thought it was tacky not to give him a nod. The unusual choice of terminology says the CNN author probably did at least run across the post in his RSS feed.

    #34 Amen!

  30. @36: Ok, you’re right there, although I will say that part of my objection was to BB’s use of the term “plagiarism” as well.

    I’ll also point out that the author, while not accusing CNN of plagiarism, takes the pains to point out “similar passages.”

  31. There is a professional organization for journalists. Find it. File a real complaint against the name in the byline. Include in the complaint the news director for the news show. Write a letter to the editor of the Columbia Journalism Review.

    Not as satisfying as carpet bomb, but it will hit CNN where it hurts, among its peers. All they care about is suits, haircuts and what there little clique thinks.

    All the best.

  32. Similar in concept, yes. But the guy who did the CNN list is probably 10 years older than the scrappy blogger, based on the selections.

  33. This is extremely frustrating! But it does go to show you the power of big media and large corporations in the world. I have a feeling hopes that the Internet would become a giant leveler may not be as hopeful as one might wish.

  34. If the question is whether mainstream media swipes articles and article ideas from bloggers, the answer is yes, they do.

  35. Now, I’m certainly not going to claim that the CNN article is shenanigan-free, but this smacks of birthday paradox to me. Sure, the odds of a specific MSM site creating an article similar in concept to your 500-word moment of genius are pretty long, but the odds of some MSM site independently arriving at some blogger’s pet topic are vanishingly short.

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