Thursday, February 28, 2008

(This post doesn't really count. But it's important to me anyway.)

Received a comment this morning that scraped what we might call a "procedural nerve" (or maybe a writerly one). I had to reject it on that basis. Since this isn't the first time this has come up, I'm going to address the subject here. So this post has no purpose except to make that procedural, writerly point. Humor me, and we'll get back to customary SHAMblog business next time.

Naturally, we're all quite attached to the words we use. And as a writer, I have a special level of investment in my words, and that investment is literal: Those words are my sole means of generating income. (The checks never actually arrive, but that's another matter.) That special relationship between me and my words also makes me sensitive to the rights of other authors. So when I get a long comment that consists of a short introduction to a topic, followed by an article/essay that appears to have been cut-and-pasted, intact, from some other publishing medium, I get both nervous and touchy.

Nervous because I don't want to be complicit in copyright infringement—which would be the case if I allowed someone else's copyrighted materials to be improperly published, even unwittingly, on my blog. Laugh if you will, but it's a crime, folks, and it's only the amorphous nature of cyberspace that makes otherwise intelligent people screw up their faces in puzzlement and ask "What's wrong with that?" When I was teaching, I found that college students, who grew up in the Age of the Internet and apparently believe that "all content is free!"*, were especially mystified by such matters as copyright. "Dude, how can you, like, own words?" So in class I would use this example: Imagine if the New York Daily News obtained an early copy of the New York Times each day and simply republished the Times' front page, verbatim, as its front page. That would, in effect, allow the News to take (free) advantage of all of the Times' vast resources, including its highly paid writers and editors, its infrastructure investment in news bureaus, etc. How do you think the Times would feel about that? Trust me, dude, the Times would insist on owning its words. All of them.

Which brings us to why I'm touchy. I know how other writers feels when their words are stolen. I've had my own words stolen—and my copyright infringed—on several occasions. Usually when this happened I had someone of significant clout, like The Wall Street Journal, to back me up. See, if I sell something to the Journal, like my recent piece on happiness, they have the right to publish it for the first time anywhere (so-called "first rights"), but I retain copyright. In essence, they're licensing the right to print that work one time. And they pay me—quite nicely, in newspaper terms—for that privilege. In return, they not only expect to be the first place the piece runs, but the only place it runs for a specified period of time. (Typically newspapers ask to be protected against republication for 14-30 days.) So if somebody else sees my Journal piece on the first day it runs and simply decides to copy it and paste it on his site, he has infringed not only my copyright, but the publication arrangement the Journal made exclusively with me. This has actually happened twice. The last time, the Journal sent a pretty scary letter to the infringing individual, threatening all kinds of dire repercussions. Suffice it to say you don't fu—uhh, you don't mess around with The Wall Street Journal.

(I know what you're probably thinking: But...people link stuff all the time! You're allowed to link. Linking isn't the same as doing a cut-and-paste. If that sounds odd, remember, linking ensures that readers will actually be taken straight to the Journal's site. Where they'll be exposed to the Journal's online advertisers, other Journal content that may lead to still more ads, subscription offers, etc. That's how the Journal helps recoup the vast sums it pays to people like me. Wink.)

Here's another way of looking at copyright infringement (or plagiarism). The fact that Sal takes Betsy's words and uses them to make a given point proves, ipso facto, that Betsy's words had value: They helped Sal make his point. If Sal didn't think that Betsy's words were helpful in making his case, Sal would've spent more time putting together his own words. But since Betsy's words were already written and available, that saved Sal the trouble. I don't want to be overly pedantic, but I feel it's important to drive home what's really going on in instances of copyright infringement/plagiarism: Sal is taking Betsy's sweat-equity, the hours or days that she spent carefully crafting a product**, and he's using it as a convenient shortcut in achieving his own selfish aims. All the hours that Betsy spent writing that piece are now accruing to Sal's benefit (and possibly are even appearing under Sal's own name, if the sin being committed is outright plagiarism). If you think about it, this means that Betsy has now effectively worked for Sal—free—for x-number of hours or days.

I realize that few people do this maliciously. Maybe they don't know that copyright infringement is possible in an informal medium like a blog. And someone might say to me, "Well, Steve, if you're going to be so picky about republishing an article someone sends to you attached to a comment, what prevents me from simply taking that article and passing it off as my own work? If I don't use the other writer's byline, you'd never know! So you're actually penalizing a guy for giving the original writer the credit! You're reinforcing even worse behavior!" Look, there's some truth to that. I'd also concede that anyone who administers a blog participates in inadvertent copyright infringement now and then. I'm sure I've done it here. (If you plagiarize someone else's work, and then you send it to me under your own name and I publish it, technically we have both sinned.)

But the bottom line is this: If I do know about it, I feel compelled to stay within the letter of the law. I feel compelled to try to protect another author's rights, once I realize they're in jeopardy. And I urge all of my visitors to do likewise.

So: In the future, if you're taking material from a bylined/copyrighted source, please don't send it to me and expect me to publish it on SHAMblog. And if you're not sure whether that material is copyrighted, contact the person whose material you want to use (i.e. the person with the byline) or contact the webmaster of the site where you found it.

I'd be happy to take questions...but only if you put them in your own words.

* They're used to pirating music and films, after all, so why not words?
** And an essay is most assuredly a product, a definable work of "intellectual property."


ourfriendben said...

Thanks, Steve!

Everyone deserves "credit where credit is due," even us writer types. Maybe you could add an explanation of works in the public domain, which I think is one prime cause of confusion for people who're trying to decide whether it's okay to quote someone or not.

mikecane2008 said...

How ironic that I come across this today. I got so pis -- uh, annoyed, that so far two people of some note have used one of my blog posts as the basis for articles *they* got *paid* for that I consolidated all my original posts into one post:

For The Record: Apple and eBooks

And yeah, don't be surprised if after you read the seminal post there you recall reading something *very* similar in today's New York Times (which wouldn't then publish my comment pointing out that fact!).

And just yesterday I did a blog post about J.K. Rowling's "infringement" suit:

More About That J.K. Rowling Lawsuit

In that case, however, I side with the fan.