Opinions

Stop stealing my stuff

written by Dalhousie Gazette Staff
November 19, 2010 1:00 pm

The future of the internet

Leilani Graham-Laidlaw, Current Affairs Columnist

 

Have you heard the howls? Online, that is. Every corner of the internet that cares about copyright infringement has been calling for a pound of flesh from a tiny little magazine called Cooks Source (sic). It’s run by a woman named Janice Griggs who mistakenly thought that all content on the internet was “public domain,” hers to copy and re-print for profit.

Honey, that’s called outright plagiarism, not ‘editing a magazine.’

Monica Gaudio is the writer at the centre of the storm. She’s a medieval cookery enthusiast whose LiveJournal, up to this point, was more about renaissance fairs and the intricate socks she knits than about intellectual property law.

She maintains a domain, godecookery.com, where in 2005 she posted “A Tale of Two Tarts,” an article about the medieval popularity of apple pie. The piece includes two period-accurate recipes from two hundred years apart showing how the practice of pie baking change—nothing groundbreaking, but an interesting story if you like pie.

About two weeks ago, a friend contacted her to congratulate her and inquire as to how her apple pie article had been published in Cooks Source. It’s a free, ad-driven glossy with a readership of about 17,000 to 26,000 that also publishes online.

Gaudio had never heard of it. She thought that her piece must have been mistakenly posted on “some free article database” and called the magazine to sort out what she thought was a mix-up. A few emails later, Griggs asked her just what she wanted by contacting them.

Gaudio replied that she just wanted acknowledgement—an apology, on Facebook and the magazine’s website, and a nominal $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism. She was starting to get a little flustered.

This is where jaws started dropping and internet geeks all over started slinging mud. Griggs replied:

“It was ‘my bad’ indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings (sic)forget to do these things.”

“But honestly Monica, the web is considered public domain and you should be happy we just didn’t ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. 

If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me … ALWAYS for free!”

In response, Gaudio sought advice online. She had the screen caps and emails to prove her story, and her story was re-blogged, re-tweeted, and picked up all over the internet on everything from Reddit to the Washington Post.

Soon after the original re-blogging started, there were thousands of derisive comments on the Cooks Source Facebook page. In the course of twelve hours 2,000 people friended Cooks Source to leave hate mail.

Someone started an open spreadsheet on Google documenting other articles that were straight-out copied into Cooks Source from the internet. There are 162 stolen articles listed as of 12:50 a.m. on Nov. 10, originally published everywhere from minor blogs to well-established sources like WebMD, Martha Stewart Living, Food Network TV, NPR, Weight Watchers, and the New York Times, just to name a few. Some articles were also pulled straight out of published cookbooks—way out of that “public domain” Griggs thought existed.

Eventually, on the advice of hundreds of commenters, Gaudio hired a lawyer.

Even if it never goes too far down the legal path, many of the small businesses that advertise in Cooks Source have announced that they’re pulling all support from the magazine, often after being told by people who read about it online.

Both Gaudio and Griggs asked people not to harass the advertisers, and the magazine’s website was deleted to protect the contact information of those advertisers.

What exists there now, a week after this started, is quite a reasonable statement:

“Last month an article, “American as Apple Pie—Isn’t,” was placed in error in Cooks Source, without the approval of the writer, Monica Gaudio. We sincerely wish to apologize to her for this error, it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff … This issue has made certain changes here at Cooks Source. Starting with this month, we will now list all sources … However: Cooks Source cannot vouch for all the writers we have used in the past, and in the future can only check to a certain extent.”

They say they made the donation she requested, and added at the end that “to say this has hurt our business is an understatement.”

Though all’s well that ends well, this was a costly mistake to make for someone who has “been doing this for 3 decades.” Griggs lost a lot of revenue and her reputation.

As one of those “young writers” who needs similar advice, this both makes my week (that Gaudio is being vouched for by the masses) and leaves me kind of terrified (that Griggs thought she could get away with theft).

If “established” names in the publishing industry think that what we write and post online is essentially free content that they do not have to pay for or even acknowledge, then someone like me will never, ever be able to make rent. Writers post their work for free so they can build a portfolio, not so they can be taken advantage of. Making your work accessible doesn’t mean that all young writers like me are so desperate for publication they don’t need to be told when something of theirs is being published by a second-rate magazine. Our desire for publication doesn’t invalidate the copyright on our intellectual property.

There’s legal recourse for anyone whose work has been stolen, but as a student or amateur writer with little legal experience that route is time and energy consuming, never mind expensive if you don’t win your case. Writers shouldn’t need to act like (or retain) lawyers to be able to protect the work they put into a piece.

On the other hand, if the fuss kicked up by one little blog can produce this many defenders overnight, my faith in humanity just skyrocketed. People do care about good writing, and they care about the little guy getting his due from the other little guy. And thank goodness. My rent’s cheap, but not that cheap.

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