ALTOM: Just because it's on the Web doesn't mean it's free

Tim Altom
December 4, 2010
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Tim Altom

Surfing the Web is like being the parent of multiple kids. You hear the rowdiness in a far-off room all day long and learn to take it for granted, but once in a while there’s a great crash and a howl that sounds like a civil defense siren, and for no apparent reason a cause célèbre bursts forth. Then everybody has to come running, which only increases the effect. As the comedian Gallagher noted, “Did you ever notice that the bigger the crowd, the more people show up for it?”

The Web does this often. One recent Web explosion has its roots in medieval apple pie recipes, but has lessons for those using the Web today.

Some time back, food writer Monica Gaudio wrote a piece on a Web site about how apple pies were made in medieval Europe (www.godecookery.com/twotarts/twotarts.html). Earlier this year, a small cooking magazine called Cooks Source in New England featured an article of its own on medieval apple pies, but it turned out the piece was only a thinly rewritten version of Gaudio’s work. Gaudio spotted it and sent the magazine a notice that the words were hers, and asked for a small donation to be made to Columbia University as payment.

This kind of thing happens more than people outside of publishing know. It was possible, for example, that “Cooks Source” had purchased a purloined version of the article without realizing it was lifted, and most publications in that embarrassing situation will promptly pay up.

Not Managing Editor Judith Griggs. Her response to Gaudio has become the Outrage of the Week on the Web. Here is the text that Gaudio says came back to her via e-mail:

“Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was “my bad” indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds [sometimes] 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!”

So far, Griggs hasn’t backed off. Rather, it appears she has tried to explain only why she seemed condescending, not why her magazine lifted Gaudio’s material.

Perhaps the most puzzling thing about Griggs’ response is her startling lack of knowledge about the Web and copyright protection. Somehow she seems to have fallen into the same trap lazy undergraduates sometimes do, assuming that if it’s on the Web it’s fair game. From a practical standpoint, that may well be true. It’s hard to police where your words or images will end up if you put them out there for the whole world to experience. But from a legal point of view (and lawyers tend to take a legalistic viewpoint, I’ve found), if you write it, you own it, no matter where it may show up in latter days. Even if you put it on the Web.

Online articles and images follow the same rule. Since 1986, you don’t even need to supply a copyright notice, although it’s best to do so. The page where Gaudio’s writing appeared had such a notice, so the magazine’s stance is almost incomprehensible. Griggs could have lifted a phrase or two for the magazine piece—that would be considered “fair use.” But the magazine’s lawyer could have told her that copying and lightly editing it didn’t transfer ownership. And you can bet the magazine is copyrighted.

Reusing images from the Web is commonplace, too, and unlawful unless the owner has given permission or explicitly released them into the public domain. Linking to someone else’s image so it appears on your page is controversial, though. You’re not “taking” it exactly, but you’re getting use out of somebody else’s property.

The takeaway is that, even if it’s a pain, be careful what you use. It’s all just good fun until the lawyers get involved.•


Altom is a consultant specializing in pairing businesses with appropriate technology. His column appears every other week. He can be reached at taltom@ibj.com.


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