November 11, 2010

Copyright on the Internet – Part 2 – “All your bouillabaisse are belong to us.”

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:45 pm
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CopyrightYesterday I wrote about the Cooks Source copyright infringement story that was all over the Internet last Friday. And how I was surprised that I hadn’t seen the story picked up by the technical writing community, because I can see so many reasons why we should be talking about it.

The post was getting a bit long, so I cut it in half. Today I present part 2. To quote one of the clever folks over on the Cooks Source Facebook page, “All your bouillabaisse are belong to us.”

You need to know who is really generating your “user generated” content.
One of the trendy topics in technical writing circles these days is “user generated” content. For example, having a Wiki where you users can contribute content. But how do you know that the content that your users are contributing is their own writing? Someone, somewhere is probably blogging or tweeting about your product. So how farfetched is it to imagine that some helpful person might copy a blogger’s copyrighted tips and tricks into your customer Wiki without asking permission or crediting the author?

The apology posted by Cooks Source implies that some unknown “sources” submitted all the articles that they reprinted without permission. “…we will no longer accept unrequested articles, nor will we work with writers or illustrators unless they can prove they are reputable people, provide their sources…

The Internet is all about content. And Internet denizens are fuzzy about copyright.
Back in 2000 I spent 30 minutes writing up a document that I called the Neo-Fan Manifesto. I printed out a bunch of copies, and left it around on the freebie tables at the World Science Fiction convention in Chicago (ChiCon 6). The editor of Emerald City asked permission to republish it. And the next year it was included in the WorldCon program book, where it was one of the panel topics and I was a panelist. I haven’t been to a World Science Fiction convention since 2004 (in fact, I probably haven’t been to a sci-fi con since 2008). But if you Google my name, somewhere in the list of entries you’ll find multiple copies of the Neo-Fan Manifesto. In fact, my little manifesto seems to have taken on a life of its own. I Googled myself earlier this week and discovered that it is now on Facebook. My 15 minutes of nerd fame.

My manifesto granted the right to reprint so long as my name remained on the document, and so far everyone who has republished it has honored that request. But in today’s Post-Napster, BitTorrent, open source world people just don’t stop to think “Is this copyrighted?” before grabbing something and using it as they see fit. I can’t tell you how many times I have Googled a topic, only to find identical content posted on several different Web sites. I have a friend who is a costume historian who has had entire articles lifted off her Web site and reprinted with her name and copyrights removed. I have another friend who is a tailor who has had watermarked photos of her work stolen from her site and reposted elsewhere. One of my costuming mailing lists keeps an eye on a vendor on Etsy who regularly steals photos from other costumers, pattern companies, and museums and claims that her costumes will look just like the photos. She’s been getting reported for her shenanigans for months now.

But Julie, we’re trying to get people to read our content! Isn’t that the point?

No, the point that I want you to remember here is that once your content gets reposted/repeated on someone else’s site, you no longer have control over it. My sister is a filmmaker. She has a profile over on Internet Movie Database which she can update and edit. At some point, someone imported her IMBD profile into Wikipedia. No problem, she can still edit it. But then her profile got imported from Wikipedia into Facebook, and she no longer has control or editing abilities over the content. And good luck trying to contact Facebook about changing content on their site. She’s had a personal Facebook account for a while, but was surprised to find out there was another page on Facebook with her name on it that was obviously about her.

Professional writers need to act professionally.
Just because Judith Griggs called herself a professional editor doesn’t mean that she was either professional or a good editor. Professional editors should be up in arms when they see this woman calling herself an editor, when she so clearly can’t do the job. And professional technical writers should likewise be up in arms when we’re faced with the idea that just because anyone can write, that our skills aren’t valuable and that we don’t deserve to be compensated for our work.

The STC has had an ethics statement since 1998. I’m pretty sure this page doesn’t get linked to as often as it should be, so I think it’s worth pointing out that you can read it here.

You need to understand the power of The Social Network.
Many of my favorite historical blogs have SCA connections (they’re the largest group of medieval/renaissance reenactors in the United States). And the SCA blogging community was closely following this story, since Monica Gaudio is one of their own. I watched this story unfold, in near real-time, all day Friday. And it was awesome (and frightening) to behold.

Companies are out there busily trying to find ways to get the social web to work for them, but they need to remember that there’s also the chance that it can work against them. There are multiple sites out there like The Consumerist just waiting to publicize stories of poor customer service. And if you can do something clever, like write a song about how United Breaks Guitars, you could end up being an Internet celebrity.

I predict that Cooks Source is going to become the case study for how the Social Network brought down a company. My biggest take away from this whole story is rather neatly summed up in the headline of this story from PC World – How Not To Piss Off the Internet. An article which, I just have to note, has already been re-posted in its entirety, crediting the author but not PC World, over on IT Business.CA . Who apparently see no irony at all in lifting and reprinting an article about lifting and reprinting articles. And then putting their own copyright on it.

I rest my case.

Related Posts
John Scalzi on the Cooks Source Apology

All Facebook on whether or not the Cooks Source Facebook page was hacked

On the millennial generation

How to deal with an #epicfail

November 10, 2010

Copyright on the Internet – Part 1 – Cooks Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:39 pm
Tags: ,

Cooks SourceAlong with several technical writing mailing lists, I also read quite a few blogs. My blog reading is a mix of my friends, costumers and other folks with an interest in history, novelists and other freelance writers, and (probably last in order of importance) technical writers. I’ll admit, I don’t read nearly as many technical writing blogs as I do other blogs. I tend to learn more about writing, the actual process as well as the business end of things, from the professional novelists that I read. Tech writer blogs tend to be oddly specific, passing along tips for software that I don’t use, or focusing on the writer’s current obsessions. But hey, who am I to complain, I’m not paying to read these blogs. Everything on the Internet is free after all.

And that’s exactly the point of today’s post. Everything on the Internet is NOT free.

I’m really surprised that none of my TW mailing lists or the TW blogs that I read has picked up this story. Because while not one, but two of my technical writing mailing lists were bickering last week over whether is it one space or two after a period, the rest of the Internet was discussing the weighty topics of intellectual property, plagiarism, and copyright.

Let me ‘splain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up.” Inigo Montoya, The Princess Bride

Back in 2005, Monica Gaudio, a member of the SCA, wrote an article about apple pie that was published (and copyrighted) on the Gode Cookery Website. Recently one of her friends contacted her and asked how she had gotten it published? Turns out that a small, ad-supported magazine called Cooks Source (Yes there is a missing apostrophe. We all noticed it.) had reprinted her article without her permission. She contacted the magazine, and after a series of e-mails, in which she asked only for a public apology and a small donation to Columbia School of Journalism, she received the now infamous reply from “professional editor” Judith Griggs, presented here in its original form: [Must. Control. Urge. To. Spell check…]

“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 somethings 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!”

Perhaps you can understand why this story went viral? [Warning – I’m going to supply links for background, but don’t follow them unless you really want to spend all day following this story. It was everywhere on the Web last Friday.]

Monica blogged about the incident. A friend of hers, professional writer Nick Mahatmas picked up the story. Then John Scalzi wrote about it. And cult favorite Neil Gaiman tweeted about it to his 1.5 million followers. And the story spread like wildfire. (There is a timeline of events here.) By the end of the day Friday, many traditional media outlets (NPR, LA Times, The Guardian, Publishers Weekly, etc.) had picked up the story as well. (Summary links here.) It took until sometime Tuesday morning for an actual response from Cooks Source/Judith Griggs.

OK Julie, that’s all very interesting, but what does it have to do with technical writing?


Really, the more I think about this story, the more I can see links to and implications for technical writing. In fact, this is going to end up being a two-part post. Which is why I’m so very surprised that none of my TW mailing lists or blogs has commented on this story yet.

Copyright infringement should concern all writers.
Copyright infringement should concern anyone who writes for a living. As other net denizens have pointed out, while recipes can’t be copyrighted, the content wrapped around the list of ingredients can be copyrighted. This particular recipe came with an article that was over 1,000 words long. And the article was copyrighted.

Many technical writers create content for themselves: they write blogs, articles, give presentations at conferences, write articles for local churches or charities, create poems and short stories, etc. And it’s a good idea to Google your content once in a while, just to make sure that someone hasn’t given it a new home that you don’t know about. One of the novelists whose blog I read has at least one fan who expressed their appreciation for her work by scanning her books and posting them on BitTorrent, thereby costing her money in lost sales. Some fan, huh? As she says, “Book sales fall because of pirated material, writers get dropped by their publishers and have to find other work — which means no more books.”

OK Julie, but few of us are lucky enough to be published by a traditional publishing house and receive royalties for our writing. We’re writers for hire….Yes, which means that our employers have copyrights that need to be protected. Although most of us can leave that up to the lawyers.

Plagiarism and Copyright infringement are an issue for hiring managers.
Back when I worked in a doc group, my manager received a resume from a guy who had worked at the same company where our editor had previously worked. So she asked our editor to take a look at his writing samples and tell her what he thought. Our editor took one look at the samples and said, “This guy didn’t write these. I did. He’s made some minor edits, but I wrote the original drafts of all this content.” With so many companies publishing their product documentation in digital form these days, I can only hope that hiring managers are checking with references after they’ve inspected an applicant’s writing samples. It is all too easy to pad your portfolio with documents that you didn’t write, or that other employees at your company wrote. (This is one of the reasons why I like to use my name or company e-mail address in examples, as a way to “sign” my documentation. )

Tomorrow – Part II – Where I write about Cooks Source and user generated content, professional ethics, and the Social Network

November 9, 2010

Marketing the Color Nook

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:40 pm
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Library Hello, my name is Julie, and I’m a Biblioholic.

The first thing people usually say when they visit my home is “Wow, you have a lot of books.” Since I’m starting to run out of spaces to put new bookshelves, I’ve been seriously considering buying an e-reader. But after reading this article about the new color Nook from Barnes and Nobles, I have to wonder if the people designing these contraptions have any idea who their core market is?

When I worked at Barnes and Nobles, the company defined a “reader” as someone who read at least one book a year. In 2007 the Associated Press conducted a poll, and found out that 25% of Americans read no books in the previous year. The typical American reads 4 books a year. If you exclude non-readers, the average number of books read in a year is 7. If the average reader buys all 7 of their books in hardcover, the $175 they spend on books hardly justifies spending another $150-300 to buy an e-reader.

People who only read one or two books a year aren’t going to buy an e-reader. The sort of people who want to buy an e-reader are the people who don’t leave the house without reading material on them. People who don’t have enough room in their house (or luggage) for the volume of books that they read. People who have trouble storing their libraries because they’ve run out of bookshelves. Or spaces to install new bookshelves.

The average American isn’t their market. I am. The couple of years when I bothered to keep track of the number of books I read, I plowed through 60 – 75 books a year. And back when I sold books at Barnes and Nobles, we had customers who came in to the store weekly and filled a basket with books. Then came back the next week and bought another basket, because they’d already read the books they bought the week before. These are the people who I would think would be the core market for e-readers.

And yet look at the mixed messages that this article is sending about their target market. The battery allows up to eight hours of continuous reading, and the gadget’s 8 GB of internal memory can hold around 6,000 books. Eight hours of continuous reading? I’ve been known to devour a good book in one sitting. And haven’t their developers ever been on an international flight? It’s not unusual to be away from an outlet for more than eight hours when you’re traveling. How frustrating to have 6,000 books in your pocket, and not enough battery life to read them.

But the part of the article that worries me the most is the part where is says that Barnes & Nobles’ announcement indicates it views the e-reader fight as one that will be won on technology — not content.

Really? I thought the whole point of an e-reader was to be able to read content. But what do I know, I’m just a reader. And at the moment, the criteria I’m looking for in an e-reader isn’t technology, but the following:

• Screen size – equivalent to a trade paperback book
• Price point – low enough to justify the purchase (at or close to $100)
• Battery life – measured in days, not hours

All three items on my wish list are currently available, just not on the same device. Instead, the current crop of e-readers include several features that I really don’t care about:
• Color display (I’ve seriously cut back my magazine and comic reading, and there aren’t many picture books targeted towards adults)
• Social features (ability to Twitter or post to Facebook)
• Ability to loan books (I only have 2 or 3 friends who own e-readers)

Another thing that I’m struggling with is the current pricing scheme for books for e-readers; prices for hard copy and e-reader versions are the same, around $10 per copy. But when you buy an e-book, you don’t really own anything. Yes, you paid for the story, but after you’ve read it, you don’t have anything left but data on a device that will probably be obsolete within a year or two. A hard copy book can last for decades, which means, if you really like the book you can loan it to friends. (My copy of The World According to Garp got passed around at least a half a dozen of my friends, and has since been autographed). Or donate it to your local library book sale, service member or charity.

I haven’t quite made up my mind yet as to whether or not I’m going to buy an e-reader. I supposed it depends on whether I think I’ll do enough reading of “disposable” books in the next year or two. But it’s still an interesting thing to ponder, when you can’t sell an e-reader to a biblioholic, what are you doing wrong?

Related links –

I’ve read quite a few blogs by professional writers (i.e novelists) on the topic of e-readers and ebooks. My favorites are probably the following posts by author Jay Lake.

The value of ebooks; or contents vs container.

More on ebooks, pricing and licensing.

Yet another dip into ebooks and licensing.

And a Color eInk reader has been announced by a Chinese e-reader maker.

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