Former Kansas City Star columnist Steve Penn filed a ballsy little lawsuit this week.
First off, as a journalist, Penn surely knows how difficult it is to prove that his former employer defamed him, as it is with all defamation cases.
But the crux of his complaint is even more controversial. Penn alleges that just because he used portions of press releases in his general interest columns, that doesn't mean he's a plagiarist.
Did you catch that? Copying stuff does not equal plagiarism.
The paper dismissed Penn in July 2011 after over 30 years at the paper. In a column announcing the termination, the paper wrote it discovered that since 2008, Penn used portions of press releases in his columns whole cloth or with nearly identical language. It claimed to have found over a dozen less-than-original columns.
As an example, the paper said this passage was copied from a release almost verbatim:
Over the years, Byrd was able to turn her dream into a successful business that created a crowd of regulars who ate breakfast with her every morning.
She made sure she had an atmosphere that welcomed everyone. No one left hungry. She never turned anyone away. She had a little green box of IOU's that she kept behind the counter.
"Another June column repeated nearly an entire release about a partnership between the Duke Ellington family and Alaadeen Enterprises Inc. to aid U.S. veterans," the announcement concluded.
Now, almost a year later, Penn has come back with a fascinating charge and a $25,000 suit for damages.
"Such press releases are widely-understood in the journalism industry to be released to the press by those who want their words published with no or minimal editing and who do not desire attribution as to authorship," the suit states. "Despite this widespread practice, Plaintiff was falsely accused of an improper practice at a minimum at least akin to plagiarism, and was fired."
Penn claims the paper libeled or defamed him, and also holds parent company McClatchy responsible for loss of business standing and job opportunities. Read the whole lawsuit here.
Back in 2011, the paper's editor wrote that Penn had violated the company's ethics policy, which is pretty clear on plagiarism: "Do not borrow the work of others. Plagiarism includes the wholesale lifting of someone else's writing, research or original concepts without attribution."
In this increasingly cash-strapped world of journalism, more and more press releases appear as "news articles" without a word changed, but the question here is, can an author put his name on it -- or on lightly retouched chunks of it -- and call it original work?
A November 14th hearing will start the process to decide.