VICE Gets Caught Plagiarizing the Guru Magazine
VICE has reported on plagiarism but can’t keep their story straight after being called out for plagiarism.
By BE SCOFIELD / Bio
April 9th, 2021
After VICE producer Joshua Osbourne plagiarized and lifted a paragraph of my original cult reporting for his short documentary, VICE director of licensing Cristina Lombardo has defended him. Lombardo told me, “We treat allegations of plagiarism very seriously” and added, “we have not identified any elements that would support your claim.” Lombardo has served as VICE media’s director of licensing since 2017 and has spoken on conference panels about media licensing and rights.
I had merely reached out to Osbourne and politely asked him to credit his source next time. Had Osbourne merely said, yes, he had used my work, and then added a link or credited me, I would have walked away. But Osbourne told me he and his team had never seen my work on the Love Has Won cult, got defensive and then blocked me. I then decided to reach out to VICE leadership.
I knew Osbourne had used my work because he showed an image I created of Alex Whitten with a circle around him that was only found in my article. And the wording between his script and my paragraph is identical. Furthermore, you’d have to be the worst researcher in the world to spend months creating a film without having seen the only and original investigative reporting on the cult.
When I posted about what VICE had done, my readers immediately saw the injustice calling what Osbourne had done “disgusting,” “dreadful,” “awful,” “shameful,” and “infuriating.” Journalist colleagues of mine also immediately recognized the problem. It meets the textbook defintion of plagiarism.
As VICE’s director of licensing, Cristina Lombardo should have easily recognized the problem as well. Instead, she doubled down and tried deflecting. “We would like to emphasise that Josh is the host of the False Gods series, as opposed to the producer of the film who was responsible for research.” Lombardo suggested that if a separate VICE producer had plagiarized my work it would have been somehow ok.
Regardless, Lombardo hadn’t gotten her story straight, however, as Osbourne had already told me that he and the team had never seen my work. “For the record neither me or anyone in my team were aware of until you messaged me,” he wrote. “We do all our own research and obviously if done correctly the results will be the same which is why I see how you could have come to that conclusion.”
Lombardo did not respond to my follow up inquiry seeking to clarify the two conflicting stories. Nor did she answer how my photograph had ended up in VICE’s documentary if they had never seen my work.
As an indy journalist who has struggled financially and has often had my work used without credit, it’s important to set a precedent by challenging those who steal my work. I was also the original and only journalist to do investigative reporting on the cult, risking my safety on the ground and continually as I’m now an enemy of the cult.
Copyright Infringement and Lawsuits
Many of my readers said I should sue VICE over the plagiarism. It’s clear that Cristina Lombardo was trying to protect VICE from a lawsuit in her response. Admitting to plagiarism could be a legal nightmare, however.
Yet, VICE has reported on and called out plagiarism on multiple occasions, which merely acknowledges that they are aware of the issue and concerned enough to cover it.
An article about plagiarism and attribution explains the standard. “Plagiarism is traditionally defined as taking someone else’s work and presenting it as your own. In journalism, it is considered one of the primary sins of the profession. Many journalists have lost their jobs or faced legal action for lifting others’ writing or other production.” They go on to quote the Society for Professional Journalists. “The century-old Society for Professional Journalists has a simple statement on plagiarism in its Code of Ethics: ‘Never plagiarize. Always attribute.'”
“In general, erring on the side of directly crediting the source is safer, ethically and legally, than the reverse.” – Rachel E. Stassen-Berger
For journalists and writers interested to know, there are grounds for a lawsuit for up to $150,000 in statutory damages as long as an official copyright has been filed with the government. This costs around $50 but up to ten articles can be copyrighted at once. While any creative work is inherently copyrighted after it was created, in order to sue for statutory damages this formal copyright must have been filed. The awards generally range from $750 – $30,000 but could reach up to $150,000 if the copyright infringement was shown to be intentional. Without the formal copyright registration one could sue for “actual” damages but those would most likely amount to a small licensing fee of around $250-$500.
Of course experts like Cristina Lombardo and others at VICE are aware of these details and will try and protect themselves against a lawsuit. But Osbourne, Lombardo and the VICE team should know better than to steal someone’s work without giving credit. It’s one thing for a producer to steal someone’s work but it’s deeply alarming that leadership of VICE will defend plagiarism in their productions. Regardless of the technicalities, it’s wrong. Those who’ve analyzed the situation objectively, clearly see that.
The media industry is filled with greedy publications, production companies and journalists willing to steal and exploit others work. Mistakes happen of course. I’ve added source links or given credit after the fact when asked to do so. But to see VICE stonewall, lie and defend this level of theft is disturbing. Do they really believe that VICE producers never saw my reporting? Hopefully by calling out this bad behavior and naming names this type of thing can be prevented in the future.