No governing body in the United States would be allowed to plagiarize an entire Web site and then pass it off as part of its own. The managers of the popular YaleStation Internet portal, an agency officially controlled by the Yale College Council, were accused last week of doing exactly that. WesMatch Network, a company that runs Internet dating sites at several U.S. colleges, has accused YaleStation of plagiarizing part of the WesMatch Web site — and then using it prominently as part of YaleStation’s own dating service. In the world outside Yale, any government agency that built part of its public affairs Web site with material it did not own would face exceedingly stiff legal consequences. Given YaleStation’s status, the YCC must hold a public inquiry to determine which of its members was complicit in this egregious breach of ethics. The Council must then take appropriate disciplinary action.
This latest ethical breach — or “big mistake,” as one Council member so unassumingly termed it last week — is not the first time YaleStation’s managers have been accused of neglecting the intellectual property rights of other Web site operators. Three years ago, when the site was still in its infancy, YaleStation programmers debuted a new feature that harvested and repackaged news stories published by the Yale Daily News. Instead of simply offering links to stories on the News’ Web site, as YaleStation does today, the original YaleStation site duplicated the copyrighted articles and then slapped a YaleStation banner on top of them — a questionable practice known as “framing,” which made it seem as though Yale Daily News content had actually been written, produced and published by YaleStation.
When the News first approached YaleStation about the practice, the site’s managers refused to budge: the practice was completely acceptable, they said, and there was little the News could do to make them alter it. Only when the News wrote its own electronic countermeasures to combat the practice and then threatened legal action did YaleStation change its tune. No U.S. court has ruled definitively whether the practice of framing violates copyright laws. In 1997, however, the Washington Post and several other newspaper publishers sued the owners of an Internet news Web site that had been rebranding and framing copyrighted newspaper content using the same method. The case never went to trial, however, because Total News Inc., the site’s owner, agreed to stop the practice. Under the settlement, Total News obtained the conditional, licensed right to link directly to individual articles, as the YaleStation site does today. Several other suits over the issue have resulted in settlements favorable to copyright owners.
Three years ago, YaleStation was able to deflect allegations of wrongdoing; the lack of legal clarity surrounding the practice of framing was an acceptable, if ultimately unfulfilling, excuse. This time around, however, the site’s operators (and by extension its owner, the YCC) seem to have egregiously and blatantly violated the rights of another copyright holder. Even more unbelievable is the fact that YaleStation programmers had been invited as a courtesy to test out WesMatch’s product. Apparently, YaleStation managers confused WesMatch’s kind invitation with a full license to copy and repackage code, site design and color scheme. Given the popularity of the YaleStation dating site, it’s not surprising that WesMatch’s creators discovered the uncannily close resemblance it bore to their own site. Nor is it surprising that the company has now formally accused YaleStation of copying its HTML code, the design of its database, and its signature color scheme. After all, WesMatch Network, which owns the site, is a private company that stands to lose financially when anyone (including students at other colleges) misappropriates its product. As the Yale Daily News itself wrote last week in an editorial, “such changes make it look less like the YCC was simply piloting WesMatch’s questions and more like it was adapting them for permanent use in its own project.”
It’s quite clear that YaleStation plagiarized aspects of the survey WesMatch uses to collect information about students’ preferences. Exactly how much of the survey YaleStation copied is unclear; the creators of WesMatch have said YaleStation “borrowed” almost everything. There is, of course, a very important difference between plagiarism and copyright violation; before filing a suit, WesMatch would have to decide whether the infraction constitutes a breach of ethics, or whether it represents an actual violation of law.
Computer science professor Bob Dunne, who teaches courses at Yale on technology and intellectual property law, pointed out to me yesterday that copyright law — especially as it applies to technology — is extremely complicated territory. One point is easy to understand: plagiarism, he said, is an “ethical problem, not a legal one.” Copyright infringement is a legal issue, and Dunne says he would caution any lay person — I include myself here — against trying to determine whether YaleStation’s actions constitute a legal offense. But legal precedent has made clear that computer code, computer software, and the design of databases are protected under the same copyright and trademark laws that govern all other kinds of original work. Why is a Web site any different? As Dunne says, “Web pages are certainly potentially copyrightable material.”
But even if the company never actually sues the University — even if it never sues anyone — the YCC should take serious, decisive action against the person or people responsible for copying the site. In an academic community like this one, there are few transgressions worse than that of plagiarism. To many in the academy, there is little more horrible than misappropriating the work of another for one’s own purposes. Of the more than 50 cases listed by the Yale College Executive Committee in its annual report last year, at least 20 involved academic plagiarism. Intellectual integrity is a value that the Yale community takes very seriously.
James Collins is senior in Berkeley College. He is a former managing editor for the Yale Daily News.