News Limited has been accused of copying a grassroots spelling bee website in league with the Queensland Department of Education in an attempt to turn a not-for-profit initiative into a corporate cash cow.

The Courier Mail online spelling bee, launched at the beginning of June with a range of prominent sponsors, including Capilano Honey, Toshiba, the Queensland Government and Wow Sight and Sound, offers the state’s school students the opportunity to test their skills online in the lead-up to an exclusive final at Dreamworld in September:

bee1

But the site, which began to be advertised in April, appears eerily similar to the independent National Online Spelling Bee, run by Queensland teacher Creig Adams, which went live in February:

bee2

Adams, who teaches information technology and physical education at Hills International College in Jimboomba, says he has been the victim of an intellectual property raid.

“Without them copying the idea of my site, they wouldn’t have a site,” Adams told Crikey. “It’s just wrong what they’re doing, they keep coming up with ridiculous excuses.”

Adams has so far signed up 540 schools and more than 3500 users across Australia. When his site was launched in February, it laid claim to the title of Australia’s first online spelling bee. A national competition is presently under way, with a final to coincide with International Correct Spelling Day in November. Adams says teachers have found the site useful as it feeds into NAPLAN tests and MySchool website results.

The Courier Mail‘s parallel competition for Queensland schools is also in full flight. But did News really lift the online concept? The timeline appears to be crucial.

Adams, who came up with the idea in 2008 after becoming enraged at incorrect signage posted on local businesses, sent out an email to every school in Australia after its launch, following months of manual preparation. The response was electric, with 300 individual schools signing up within weeks.

When The Courier Mail began to promote its spelling bee in early April, his antennae was pricked, but an email to News headquarters allayed his fears — the competition, a staffer assured him, would be based on a physical tournament run by sister UK newspaper The Times. A quick check of The Times’ spelling bee website revealed the tournament was a travelling roadshow rather than an online competition.

Still, Adams remained wary. In an email exchange on May 12, News marketing staffer Graham Rowsell suggested The Courier Mail might be willing to purchase some components of his website.

“What sort of costs are we talking about if we were to purchase some of your elements?,” Rowsell wrote quizzically. The staffer also asked how many school and students are registered in Queensland and requested details of how Adams’ website worked: “Can you tell me how your game works once you are logged in as a student?”

Adams wrote back to organise a meeting, but his emails went unanswered. Alarm bells started ringing again when the Courier Mail‘s website went live on June 1, with a false claim to be “Australia’s first online spelling bee”.

Adams says the online spelling bee concept and his site’s reports and certificates function has been directly ripped off by News.

Courier Mail marketing manager Samantha Clark strongly refuted the allegations of plagiarism when contacted by Crikey, saying the paper first made contact with potential sponsors in “mid-2009”. She said the idea had been in the works for over two years, following a four-month fact-finding mission to the UK by News staffer Rowan Smith in December 2008. The online idea began well before Adams’ site went public in January, Clark said, and the paper wasn’t even aware of the rival site until Adams contacted the Courier Mail suggesting the possibility of collaboration.

However, News sponsors Dreamworld, Harper Collins and the Queensland Department of Education, appear to contradict this timeline, saying they had not been contacted until about February or March this year — just weeks after Adams’ site launched.

In an emailed statement, the department said it was “first informed about the spelling bee in January 2010, after The Courier Mail contacted our media buying agency, Mediacom.” It refused to release details of the terms of its deal with News, or the company’s proposal document, due to “commercial in confidence” arrangements.

Amid the claims and counterclaims, Adams is unmoved: “… this puts me into a head-to-head David vs Goliath battle with a large remorseless multinational behemoth.” He believes the Courier Mail is planning to export the concept to other states, a possibility confirmed by Clark.

Adams said News also planned to harvest the email addresses of children to sell to big business — an initial disclaimer admitting the site would “share … information with other persons or entities who assist us in providing our services, running competitions or with other companies” on its launch site was absent from the final version.

While News is offering major prizes including laptops, $500 home entertainment vouchers and pallets of Capilano honey, Adams said that despite his site’s huge take-up rate, he was yet to secure any corporate support. His website presently features one ad from a friend who designs USB stick holders.

And, according to intellectual property law expert Trevor Choy, it appears the veteran teacher has little in the way of legal recourse.

“It’s difficult to register business ideas, although there are exceptions like algorithms that have been patented, or Amazon’s one click ordering process for example,” Choy said.

“But there’s really nothing to stop News Limited from producing a spelling bee simply because it’s online. The question is whether it’s the right thing to do ethically. People can draw their own conclusions …”

Peter Fray

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