Free world of food blogging creates thicket over copyrights, ethics

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 22 March, 2012, 12:00am

You can be certain that everything in this food and wine section is accurate and original. With dozens of reporters, editors, sub-editors, and proofreaders combing each article, a major metropolitan daily newspaper has to be precise, lest it face legal action.

The same, however, can't be said for new media. The advent of the internet has meant that anyone with a cheap laptop, a wireless connection and a few taste buds is now a food writer. Plagiarism, libel and copyright issues are the obvious side effects of such a lack of control, and while the line is definitely drawn when it comes to media law in a print publication, things aren't so clear cut with blogs.

'In general, media laws dealing with defamation and copyright apply to online media the same as they would to traditional media,' says Doreen Weisenhaus, director of the University of Hong Kong's media law project. However, there is no 'umbrella' international law, and the laws in place usually vary with jurisdiction.

Specific to our city, Weisenhaus cites a passage from her book Hong Kong Media Law: 'Hong Kong's Copyright Ordinance was one of the first laws to say that a copyright owner can prevent his or her work from being distributed without permission on the internet. The Hong Kong Intellectual Property Department recommends requesting the ISP [internet service provider] hosting the offending website to remove the infringing material.'

Successful legal action, of course, still depends on a number of factors, including where the copyright infringement victim is and which country hosts the offending blog. Things become even trickier when it comes to food blogging: aside from restaurant reviews, the meat of food writing is recipes, and you can't copyright a list of ingredients. This has caused numerous problems for both bloggers and published authors, especially when a person is considered both.

Dan Lepard is a chef, columnist, cookbook author and blogger. Most recently, he was both celebrated and chastised for asking bloggers who had reprinted his recipes to remove them from their websites. Legal action was never taken, but strongly worded e-mails with links to country-specific copyright protection laws were routinely sent.

'Individual food bloggers probably only think in terms of the recipe they are copying at that moment, without considering that, over time, the result of many bloggers cherry-picking an author's work is that everything can end up online, without any tangible benefit for the writer,' says David Whitehouse, Lepard's business manager. 'We don't ask bloggers to delete whole posts, just the recipe ... Most understand the requests, but there have been hostile responses.'

Many argued that reprinting Lepard's recipes - with credit, mind you - offered more publicity to his published works, but with the lack of strict international media laws to justify either side, no one could say whether there was any wrongdoing. Other incidents, however, are a little clearer cut.

Gregoire Michaud - pastry chef at the Four Seasons hotel, book author and blogger - faced a similar but more concrete issue when a blogger copied a photo from his website. While copyright laws are vague about recipes, they are much clearer about the protection of photographs. Michaud, however, didn't take legal action, and instead wrote a heartfelt post about copyright and plagiarism on his blog, which in turn led to a huge outcry against the offending blogger across numerous social media networks. Within days, the copycat blog had shut down.

'I'm flattered if someone reprints on their blog with reference to my original recipe, and if they ask permission to use my photos, I'll most likely share as long as it's credited,' says Michaud. 'But to have your material lamely stolen is not ethically acceptable. Legal consequences should only apply in cases where the owner has obvious reasons to sue. A blog is part of a free online community, but where does the law start and where does it end?'

It's easy to paint the blogger as an outlaw, but one can make the argument that only media protection laws separate them from true journalists. For example, restaurant reviews in a print publication are considered opinion, but in a recent incident in Taiwan, a blogger was jailed for 30 days after a review was considered libellous. The blogger, a Ms Liu, received two years' probation and had to pay NT$200,000 (HK$52,600) in compensation for claiming a restaurant was unsanitary as she had seen cockroaches there.

'When a journalist writes a negative review of a restaurant, it's an opinion, but it's the same for a blogger,' says Jason Tse, known as popular Hong Kong blogger Jason Bon Vivant. 'The key question is how we define bloggers and whether they are truly part of the media.'

'The Taiwan incident set a very bad precedent. Bloggers are increasingly becoming citizen journalists, and I do feel they should come under the same protection,' says Janice Leung of the E*ting the World blog. 'But at the same time, copyright is copyright. There have to be laws and codes of ethics to which bloggers should subscribe.'

Aside from the law, with its international variations, other ethical codes exist: Tim O'Reilly, the famed supporter of the free software and open source movements, developed the seven-point Blogger's Code of Conduct that many foodies follow. But for some, a set of rules without policing is not enough.

Another blogger on the Openricer tumblr site said bloggers lacked even the minimal control mechanisms that would be a part of any respected print publication. Once they publish onto the web, there is no system in place to punish them for stealing someone else's work as there is in the print medium.

Of course, enforcing any kind of international monitoring system at such a late date will bring its own fallout. Just look at the virtual campaign against recent efforts by the US Senate to implement the Stop Online Piracy Act.

Those who've been victimised by plagiarism say that bloggers can't be controlled. 'The blogosphere has become way too complex to be put under a monitoring authority,' says Michaud. 'Even China can't fully block Facebook and Twitter. Having a blog police would create online mayhem.'

In the end it all comes down to one's own conscience.

'The human factor becomes the pivot point; what ethics are right and who is right?' Michaud says. 'But that's a question without a firm answer, I'm afraid.'

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