Friday, 15 May 2009

Message-Board Plagiarism (Part II)

This piece is one of a small group of my published posts which recently decided to hide themselves from view and move to my drafts folder. I am inept, and don't know why that happened, but I'm posting them all again and hope that this time they stay where they're put. Apologies for any confusion.

My earlier post about message-board plagiarism and copyright infringement kicked up a bit of a storm at a writers’ message-board.

The discussion centred around comments like, “I don’t know what the fuss is about,” and, “what harm does it do?”

The answer is simple: it’s against the law!

Such use is theft: not just of intellectual rights, but of cold, hard cash—albeit indirectly. By reproducing articles elsewhere, you’re using up rights to those articles which the author might otherwise get paid for.

When an article is bought by a newspaper or magazine, it will usually appear in both the print and the online editions. If the writer retains all other rights to the piece, they are free to sell it elsewhere. I’ve done it, and so have most of my writer friends. My standard procedure is to let the new editor know exactly where a piece first appeared, and when, and to give an undertaking not to offer it elsewhere for a reasonable amount of time after their publication (which can mean days, weeks or months, depending on the periodical I’m negotiating with and how much they are going to pay me). If the new editor subsequently discovers the piece elsewhere within our agreed timeframe then I'd be trouble, and would lose the sale—whether I had agreed to the second use or not. It can be difficult to develop good relationships with editors: appearing dishonest, even when it’s due to someone else's lazy habits, lays waste to all that effort, and makes it pretty unlikely that I’ll ever work for them again.

But my main objection to this casual copy-and-paste misuse isn’t fuelled by any potential financial loss. What really irks me is the total disregard that such copyright infringement shows for writers and our work. It’s bad enough when non-writers see no value in our efforts: when other writers treat our work with such a shameful lack of respect, it’s reprehensible.


Dan Holloway said...

Jane, this is a timely reminder. I write a lot of things for blogs and other places on the web, and frequently don't care about having them cut and pasted as people wish. But I always make it clear that this is the case. If I don't make it clear people are free to do this, they're not.

You're right - we would NEVER do this with printed materials. And if someone is thinking about using so much as a line of a song in a book, they agonise over the legal rights and wrongs and will frequently change the direction of a whole chapter or more if they can't secure rights. Yet they'll happily lift things from online postings as though it's "fair game."

In general, if something appears on one of my blogs, or my interactive novel (the whole POINT of which is that people can do what they want with it) I don't mind people lifting things - it's a great way for me to get publicity. I don't want it used in a defamatory way or in a way that it would offend anyone else, but if people do that, there are rules aside from IP ones to protect me. But iof an editor has been kind enough to give me space, then even if I retain full rights to use the piece, I would think it discourteous for me to use the material elsewhere. Even if I'm not being paid and am just guest blogging, I wouldn't dream of reusing the material without consulting the person who gave me the platform. For ME to do it would be rude. For someone else to do it would be theft.
A quick note - when I write ANYTHING on line, my contact e-mail details are two clicks away at most. If people want to reproduce what I say, that's great - just send me an e-mail and I'll see what I can do. And if you e-mail me, maybe we'll stay in touch, and maybe I'll be in a position to help you out in future - that's how "networking" (terrible word!) works. If I find out you've just pinched something, I might not send the legals round, but there's no way I'm going to help you out. Ever. So, before you pilfer, remember: courtesy is not just its own reward, it has other benefits too.

Jane Smith said...

Dan, I'm beginning to think I could just hand this whole blog over to you. Thanks for that.

I remember talking to an older woman about knitting patterns, years ago. She was outraged that they cost her a pound or two: after all, she reasoned, they were only one big piece of paper and some ink; it's not like they were expensive. So she had tried to photocopy a few in the library, but the librarians wouldn't let her and she thought that this was wrong.

I tried to explain to her that it wasn't the paper and the ink that she was paying her couple of quid for, but the expertise which led to the design and the writing of the knitting patterns (and having written many myself, I know just how difficult they are to get right): but she insisted that the design and pattern had already "been done", so she shouldn't have to pay for it now. It was an odd form of logic, but one I've seen replicated in arguments in favour of such copying, whether it's online writing or images, or words in printed form.

Dan Holloway said...

Jane, it's the same with teaching resources and textbooks that are intended for copying. They cost a fortune and people are constantly up in arms about it, but someone is producing a resource that will be used hundreds of times and only getting paid once.
And yet people will happily pay £100 for the lates MS Office, which is essentially the same thing. Perhaps we should encourage people to use the word "licence" rather than "royalty" in some circumstances? There seems to be a huge psychological difference in how consumers perceive the two.

Nicola Morgan said...

Very useful and timely post, Jane. Something that gets me very hot under the collar. I'm often not bothered about the possibility of earning something else from a blog post or other article - it's just plain cheating and (as you say) ILLEGAL to steal the words without permission. And when potential authors do this, it's even worse.

I will definitely blog about it sometime soon.

Maggie Dana said...

Hi Jane

Very interesting post about an increasingly complex and fraught subject. Online material has opened up copyright issues never tackled before. I don't envy the legal beagles who have to sort it all out.

And did you get my email with the article? I'm hoping it's not languishing in your spam folder!


Jane Smith said...

Maggie, I've got your email, don't worry.

Copyright seems to be taken less sand less seriously lately: as the internet grows and technology develops, it becomes far easier to copy and distribute all sorts of media: not just writing but music, and art, and photography (a friend of mine recently found several of her Photobucket pictures being used by someone else). Often it's a clear infringement, but when you explain that the infringer is outraged. It makes me MAD: but it's very difficult to put an end to it, and some argue taht there's no need to do so. Not me: I work hard on my writing, and expect it to be treated with respect.

So there.

none said...

If the photo's being pulled directly off your server, one option is to swap it out with something the infringer might just find objectionable, while retaining the same filename.

Not that I've ever done this. Ahem.

(I use htaccess on my site to control where images can be displayed; doesn't stop someone hosting them elsewhere, tho)