BBC Sir Alex Ferguson

Telegraph journalist and ghostwriter of Sir Alex Ferguson book slams BBC for 'stealing chunks' of it - but are they in the wrong?

By Mark Leiser, Research Fellow

October 24, 2013 | 6 min read

The BBC ignited controversy among the sports journalism fraternity after publishing several news articles about Sir Alex Ferguson’s latest autobiography which lifted a significant amount of text directly from the book. Paul Hayward, the book’s ghost-writer and a sportswriter for the Telegraph, wasn’t happy about it. He tweeted:

Articles: One of the BBC's stories featuring content from the book

The article on the BBC raised questions about Intellectual Property and how much a publication can lift, without permission, before it can no longer be characterised as ‘fair dealing’. Fair dealing is the permitted allowance to copyright infringement under Sections 29 & 30 of the Copyright, Design, and Patents Act (CDPA). Technically speaking, in the UK, under s.16(3) of the CDPA if it's insubstantial it isn't an infringing act in the first place: you only need to worry about fair dealing where the copying is of the whole or a substantial part. There are no specific guidelines in any of the journalism and press codes, but the common practice is that a journalist should take no more than is necessary to make a point.Copying an insubstantial part of a work is acceptable under existing legal frameworks. This would fall into the ambit of fair dealing in almost all cases. However, there is precedent that in some cases even three or four words could be considered substantial within the context of the whole work. The CDPA does not define what will be "fair" nor does it determine limits of any kind. This is for the court to determine based on the facts of each case.Lord Denning decided rather eloquently: “It is impossible to define what is 'fair dealing'. It must be a question of degree. You must consider first the number and extent of the quotations and extracts. Are they altogether too many and too long to be fair? “Then you must consider the use made of them. If they are used as a basis for comment, criticism or review, that may be a fair dealing. If they are used to convey the same information as the author, for a rival purpose, that may be unfair. Next, you must consider the proportions. To take long extracts and attach short comments may be unfair. But, short extracts and long comments may be fair." He added: “Other considerations may come to mind also. But, after all is said and done, it must be a matter of impression, as with fair comment in the law of libel so with fair dealing in the law of copyright. The tribunal of fact must decide.”In 1965, the Society of Authors issued guidance for publishers on what it considered an acceptable code of conduct, which is now updated to reflect the times. The Society advised that permission need not be sought for short extracts provided that the content was quoted in the context of "criticism or review" and not just to embellish the text. From fiction or non-fiction prose, the Society considered that extracts should total no more than 400 words, or 800 words if published as part of a series, but with no single extract totalling more than 300 words. While the guidance is not legally binding, it offers an indication of what the industry considers acceptable.To examine whether or not the BBC crossed the fair dealing threshold is a tedious task. If Sir Alex had given the BBC exclusive rights to significant quotes within the book, then the point is moot – as long as Sir Alex owned the copyright. The exceptions to copyright, especially fair dealing for the purpose of reporting news, are seen as crucial to serving freedom of information and the public’s right to know. Fair dealing rights are generally presumed to be some of the very few rights that belong to “the public”. Fair dealing rights ameliorate some of the power that may otherwise accrue to the media proprietor intent on controlling and censoring the news. Therefore, fair dealing exceptions to copyright are assumed to contribute to the healthy foundation of a global public sphere.What copyright law can arguably be said to do is contribute toward ‘churnalism’ if a PR agency sends pre-approved text with substantial quotes which gives journalists guidance on what is permitted reporting. Copyright law could then be used to prevent substantial reproduction of additional material even if it was for critical analysis. While a significant portion of the public would be interested in Sir Alex’s book, this should not to be confused with the public interest. It appears that the BBC have taken the rather mundane event of a book launch and turned it into one of the most read articles on the site. For Paul Hayward, it appears that the BBC may have violated normal business practice, but there is no clear evidence that the organisation has gone further than the doctrine of fair dealing permits. The question, therefore, is whether violating a normal standard of business practice would still afford some protection under the doctrine of fair dealing.
BBC Sir Alex Ferguson

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