Race entry websites embroiled in plagiarism claims

An interesting story bubbled into my twitter feed on Wednesday, as I started to see people talking about LetsDoThis.com, a website that I had in fact recently used to enter the Surrey Half Marathon. The website is one of a number that provides a means for people to find races in different locations and of different distances, and then to enter that race. The benefit to users is a clear, consistent and secure way to find and enter races, and the benefit to race organisers is exposure and not having to worry about the logistics of taking payment and handling entries themselves. Probably 80% of races I sign up for use a service like this, and it’s clearly going to be a more and more lucrative industry to be in as more people want to enter events and more events pop up around the country.

The allegation that arose on Twitter, however, is that many of the race reviews shown on the LetsDoThis website are in fact plagiarised, or at least taken word-for-word, with attribution but without permission, from other sites, most notably the more-established RaceCheck.com. Many of the people highlighting this on twitter were the people who had written the original reviews, and were not happy that their content had been copied to another site.

Given that LetsDoThis are explicitly stating that they ‘sourced’ the review from RaceCheck, there doesn’t seem to be much room to dispute that this is copied from there. That still leaves questions, though.

Is this legal?

I’m not a lawyer, and copyright law and the licensing of digital content in particular is a complex area. On the face of it, however, there seems to be at least some room to question whether LetsDoThis have fully complied with the law. Content I create, regardless of whether it’s a review, or this blog post, or a beautiful poem, is mine and cannot be copied except with my express permission or according to limited ‘fair use’ exceptions. In the case of reviews, of course, what typically happens is that by submitting the review you grant an irrevocable license to the website to use that review. That is indeed the case with RaceCheck, according to their T&Cs:

9.2. You hereby grant Racecheck a worldwide, perpetual, irrevocable, transferable (with the right to sub-license), royalty-free, non-exclusive licence to use, distribute, copy, reproduce, modify and/or publish any images, text or other content uploaded by you to public-facing areas of the Site and App in any way we see fit (whether on the Site, App or via other platforms, media or publications) without further notice or payment to you or any third party. For the avoidance of doubt, this includes branding, logos or images uploaded.

and

9.4. By uploading your Content to our Platform, you herby grant us, together with other users, an irrevocable non-exclusive licence to view and use your Content without restriction.

That’s all fine and standard. That doesn’t grant anyone else the right to use your review, although given that RaceCheck have the right to ‘distribute’ the review ‘in any way [they] see fit’, I suspect you would struggle to argue that they could not license it on to LetsDoThis if they chose to. But did they? Well, their own T&Cs go on to say:

12.1. You may store, display and print off one copy of any content supplied on the Site or App solely for your own personal use. You are not permitted to publish, manipulate, distribute or otherwise reproduce, in any format, any of the content or copies of the content supplied to you or which appears on this Site or App.

So it doesn’t sound like they’ve granted anyone else the right to use your reviews. Did they, perhaps, make a separate arrangement with LetsDoThis?

Oh, ok.

Well is it ethical?

To be fair, if it’s not legal then surely it’s pretty much unethical by default. But let’s say I’m wrong above (which is quite plausible) and what they’ve done is legal. Does that make it ok?

In my opinion, and clearly in the opinions of much of twitter, no. The issue is that user-generated-content, in the form of reviews, is one of the key assets of a website like RaceCheck. Having lots and lots of useful reviews is what makes the site stand out from the crowd, so it’s entitled to guard that content closely. If I wanted to start a competitor website, my biggest challenge would be quickly generating enough content to look full and vibrant and useful. That’s a tricky challenge, but I’m afraid that’s the nature of trying to compete in business. You can’t simply level the playing field by taking all the content off your competitors website, anymore than I could jump-start my Spotify competitor by downloading all their music and re-uploading it to my own platform.

A number of people have reached out to LetsDoThis for comment, myself included, and I will update this post with any response I receive.

Update 1635 BST: 

A couple of tweets suggest that LetsDoThis has responded by removing the names from reviews. As the tweet embedded below says, this arguably makes things worse since it acknowledges that they are aware of the controversy while not really doing anything to deal with the actual plagiarism/copyright concerns.

Another point that came up is that someone else suggested that the line “together with other users” in clause 9.4 of RaceCheck’s T&Cs (quoted above) could be interpreted as granting permission to LetsDoThis to use the content. I can’t say I really agree with this as Clause 12 is pretty explicit about what use is acceptable and what is not, and it seems pretty clear that clause 9.4 is granting permission for users of the site to view and use content while using the site. I guess, ultimately, that is something that lawyers could wrangle over and eventually perhaps a court would have to decide.

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