Around this time, I look to cooking magazines for inspiration and new recipes. This year, my attention and what seemed like the entire Internet’s attention was drawn to the small publication Cooks Source and an out-of-control PR nightmare that eventually lead to its demise. The complete chain of events can be found many places, including Kathy Gill’s Storify page and Wikipedia.
The magazine had reprinted an article by author Monica Gaudio without her permission. That’s right, instead of contacting Gaudio and asking for her permission to print the article, they just ran it. When Gaudio discovered this, she asked them to make a donation to a local college in lieu of compensation. The magazine responded,
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….
The magazine’s director, Judith Griggs, continued, stating that the piece was so poorly written that the author should compensate her.
There are a couple things to learn from Griggs and her major missteps, including copyright and how to effectively respond to PR emergencies. For now, let’s talk about copyright.
Griggs very incorrectly stated, “the web is considered ‘public domain’.” Actually, public domain, according to Miriam Webster, is property that “belong[s] to the community at large, [is] unprotected by copyright or patent, and [is] subject to appropriation by anyone.” Original works, however, like Gaudio’s is protected by copyright law.
To get the official definition, I checked out the U.S. Copyright Office’s website. It states, “Copyright, a form of intellectual property law, protects original works of authorship [published or unpublished] including literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, songs, computer software, and architecture.” This includes original works published online…like this article for instance.
Fair Use = Risky Business
So, how can we use content at all? Well, the best way is to receive written permission from the original content creator.
Another way is through fair use, which is the reason I’ve been able to use direct quotes in this article. Fair use can be tricky. Again, the U.S. Copyright Office, “the distinction between fair use and infringement may be unclear and not easily defined. There is no specific number of words, lines, or notes that may safely be taken without permission. Acknowledging the source of the copyrighted material does not substitute for obtaining permission.” Griggs did credit Gaudio for the article, but as we can see from the Copyright Office, it doesn’t cover the fact that she didn’t ask permission.
Using content under fair use is all about judgment. Does your new work rely too heavily on others work? Is a considerable portion of the work your own ideas or someone else’s ideas? Have you used others’ content in analysis or have you re-interpreted it in some way?
The U.S. Copyright Office states that the best way to avoid infringement is to contact the author for permission or create your own original content. The second best option is to talk to a lawyer who specializes in the field. If all else fails, you can take your chances with fair use.
Here’s to hoping that magazine editor Griggs learned that just because it is easy to copy and paste online content doesn’t make it public domain or legal to reprint without permission.
A Few Resources
- Gaudio had a friend who noticed that her article had been published in the magazine. One automatic way to check to see if your content is copied around the web is to use the freemium service, Copyscape.
- Have all of the legal issues around copyright sapped your creative spirit? Check out the Creative Commons licenses. CC is a collection of licenses that allow for various uses of content, designated by the intellectual property owner.
- Learn more about plagiarism, copyright, and fair use at Plagiarism.org, a clearly written guide for content creators and students.
- For information about copyright and the internet, check out the University of New Hampshire’s School of Law.