Stephen Colbert vs. Arianna Huffington: what their spat is really about

The dispute bubbled up earlier this week when Stephen Colbert complained about The Huffington Post embedding his videos without sending proper payment.

Saul Loeb/AFP/Newscom/File
Stephen Colbert, shown here with Jon Stewart at the Oct. 30, 2010, 'Rally to Restore Sanity And/Or Fear' in Washington, DC, has taken issue with the Huffington Post's embedding of clips from the Colbert Report.

Stephen Colbert and Arianna Huffington are grown-ups, right? Yeah, well, in a channeling-their-inner-digital-child sort of way.

The two are in the midst of an electronic sandbox spat over who is poaching whose online content without properly paying up. Each is one-upping the other with cute moves and fancy talk.

But Mr. Colbert, the Comedy Central host, is never clowning about an issue without something else on his mind, longtime satire experts point out. So, what the heck is going on as these two masters of Internet self-promotion continue to lob “cyber sand” at one another?

The “feud” bubbled up earlier this week when Colbert complained about The Huffington Post, Ms. Huffington’s website, embedding his videos on the site without sending along proper payment. “I have yet to receive my percentage of the Huff bucks,” he complained to his studio audience.

Colbert then posted The Huffington Post on a new website he dubbed “The “Colbuffington Re-post.” Ms. Huffington returned the favor with a newly christened site, “Huffbert Nation.”

Now, Colbert is cautioning his audience against clicking on the “reposted repost,” saying, “It’s like a Russian nesting doll of intellectual theft.”

It may be tempting to call for a tired-baby timeout. But all Comedy Central has to do to resolve the issue is deny permission, points out intellectual-property lawyer Mitchell Stein, a partner at Sullivan & Worcester in New York. “The Huffington Post can’t embed video from any site if that site doesn’t give permission,” he says.

Assuming that permission is actually being granted in this case, what’s the real beef?

“This is really about Colbert raising the issue of what original content really means in today’s Internet-savvy world,” says Amber Day, author of the just-published book, “Satire and Dissent: Interventions in Contemporary Political Debate.”

Colbert is also drawing attention to the opposite of original content – the websites (including The Huffington Post) that aggregate content produced by other websites. By raising this issue, says Ms. Day, Colbert is pushing his agenda of getting people to think about where their opinions and ideas really originate.

This is his way, she says, of asking the question: If everyone is just quoting everyone else, “who is actually doing original thought?”

This question lies at the heart of the Internet’s next big evolutionary stage, says social-media expert and tech entrepreneur Michael Hussey, CEO of The goal of using other websites’ content, he says, is to maximize the position of one’s own website in the search-engine listings. This is a commonly used technique known as “search engine optimization” and can boost ad revenues online.

Other people’s content is a huge attention-grabber for a content-aggregating website such as The Huffington Post. “They are masters of the tool,” Mr. Hussey points out. This is a main reason, he adds, that AOL recently scooped up the six-year-old site for $315 million and made Ms. Huffington the head of all AOL content.

But Google, the largest Internet search engine, has been under pressure to cut back on search results that don’t point to the original sources, Hussey says. If Google begins to de-emphasize sites that are based on aggregating other people’s content, he adds, this could be a game-changer for sites such as The Huffington Post.

“All those people who just bought stock in AOL better pay attention,” he says.

But if an “everyone is doing it” ethos governs much of what is aggregated on the Internet, there are still lines between what is legal and illegal, points out media expert Paul Levinson, author of “New New Media.” We may be in a fluid stage in our concept of intellectual-property rights, but “that doesn’t mean you can simply profit from the work of others with no limits,” he says.

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