One of the hottest Internet memes last week was the story of how blogger Monica Gaudio complained to a print magazine, Cooks Source, that it had used her work without permission and got told that, really, she should be grateful to have it stolen. (The incident was covered well by TechDirt, Wired, and many others.)
Sadly, the only thing that made this story go viral was the editor’s response:
“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 other words, not only was it OK to use the content without permission, but in fact, the magazine was doing the poor writer a favor, both by giving her more exposure and by improving it with a little crack copy editing.
The aggrieved author is quoted by Time as saying that the magazine “broke the rules of the Internet basically, and the Internet got pissed off.”
If only. For the most part, the Internet blithely overlooks such transgressions. What caught its attention here was the irresistible combination of ignorance, arrogance, and bad writing in the editor’s response.
Though the Internet makes feckless appropriation of other people’s content easier, there’s nothing new about the practice or the attitudes that underly it. As editorial director of a B2B publisher, both before and after the advent of the Web, I often dealt with unauthorized use of our content. Except in the most egregious cases, no one I spoke to understood that there was anything wrong with such use.
We used to make a decent sum of money from reprints of our articles, mostly for companies that we covered. But not infrequently, those companies would object that we were charging too much “just to reprint” the articles, and would instead do it themselves. The idea that they owed us anything for the value of the content itself never occurred to them.
It got worse once the Web arrived and reprinting was simply a matter of copying and pasting. I remember speaking with one company manager who said we were charging too much for the right to reuse our articles on his Web site ($500 for unlimited use, as I recall). The Wall Street Journal, he said, only charged him something like $10. What he didn’t understand, of course, was that $10 was the fee to download the article for personal use, not to republish it on his own site.
The most irritating offenders were the sleazy market research firms that published high-priced reports based largely on reuse of our content or, worse yet, outright plagiarism of it.
What I learned, ultimately, was not to get too upset by all this unauthorized reuse. Economically, it never made sense to do much more than make a phone call to object. Though it was morally offensive, in practical terms, the harm done was minimal.
Now more than ever, the reality is, if it can happen, it will happen. That doesn’t make it right, but what it does tell you is that you shouldn’t waste too much time and effort fighting it—unless you’re given the kind of spectacular opportunity for viral browbeating that the Cooks Source editor extended on a platter.
The best strategy for dealing with copying is to accept that it will happen and stay ahead of everyone else by continuing to put out valuable and unique content. Yes, your content will get ripped off by others, sometimes subtly, sometimes not. Often that copying will be to your benefit. But even when it isn’t, you have better things to worry about: all that content you still haven’t produced.