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Wednesday, November 17 2010

The Internet Ain't 'Public Domain'

HonestReporting's social media editor, Alex Margolin, contributes occasional posts on social media issues. He oversees HonestReporting on Facebook.

Apple_pastryHeavy users of the Internet know that the web contains some level of copyright infringement. Bloggers routinely reprint whole articles from mainstream newspapers or magazines. And digital publications often “borrow” content from blogs and websites.

But sometimes a violation – and its subsequent justification – is so brazen that the Internet has no choice but to take collective action.

The case of writer and blogger Monica Gaudio versus Cooks Source magazine is a case in point, one that demonstrates what can happen when, in the words of All Things Considered, the Internet gets angry.

Cooks Source, a small Massachusetts magazine about food, published A Tale of Two Tarts by Gaudio (with credit) without informing the writer or seeking permission. When Gaudio discovered that her copyright had been violated, she e-mailed the publication, requesting an explanation, an apology and a $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

This, in part, is the response she received from Cooks Source editor Judith Griggs (bold added):

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!

After Gaudio published Griggs’ email on her blog, the response was quick and furious. Hundreds of indignant Internet users blogged the issue, and thousands more left hostile comments on Cooks Source Facebook page and tweeted about it relentlessly. A songwriter even put the words of Griggs’ letter to music and posted his performance on YouTube.

Moreover, the phrase “But honestly Monica…” became a catchphrase for misinformed defenses for wrongdoing, while a new verb “to griggs” was added to online lexicon, meaning to steal content then demand payment for editing it.

Eventually, Griggs had no choice but to take down the magazine’s website and offer an apology. She also posted a statement “explaining” how the copyright violation happened:

One night when working yet another 12 hour day late into the night, I was short one article... Instead of picking up one of the multitude of books sent to me and typing it, I got lazy and went to the www and "found" something. Bleary-eyed I didnt notice it was copy written and reordered some of it. I did keep the author's name on it rather than outright "stealing" it, and it was my intention to contact the author, but I simply forgot, between proofreading, deliveries, exhaustion.

The explanation didn't satisfy the Internet mob, which by then hijacked the magazine’s Facebook page. Collectively analyzing Griggs' website, angry readers found more alleged copyright violations, including articles pilfered from CNN, National Public Radio, and Martha Stewart’s Living.

The “I simply forgot” justification also failed to address Griggs’ real offense – her condescending and insensitive response to a writer who had been wronged. Had Griggs simply apologized, the case would have been nothing more than a reminder that some people have insufficient regard for others’ intellectual property.

But Griggs' myopic first response hit two particularly sensitive areas for Internet denizens. First, the statement that the Internet is public domain is a bewildering expression of entitlement, suggesting that Internet content has little value or merit. At best, Griggs seems to be saying, it can serve as filler for her tiny niche publication when she finds herself “short one article.”

Second, Griggs is suggesting that she improved the original article and the writer should be grateful that her work was altered, even without her consent. This statement is a violation of the very essence of what it means to own a piece of work. It means that no one can come along and change it without the owner’s approval. While copyright-centered arguments over “mash-ups” and “remixes” continue, the dispute focuses on the right to create new works from existing material, not to simple edit someone else’s articles.

In the end, Griggs noted that her small publication was unlikely to survive the Internet tsunami unleashed by her bad choices. But the magazine will maintain a legacy long after it disappears. As Matt Smith noted in a City Pages review of the incident, “the magazine may well become a digital textbook example of how not to respond to grievances in the internet age.”

Previously in Alex's series: Google Uber Alles



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