November 10, 2010

Copyright on the Internet – Part 1 – Cooks Source

Filed under: Uncategorized — heratech @ 11:39 pm
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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


  1. You’re right, Julie. This is a serious issue for technical writers.

    In the past, most technical writing was published in books — and most of it never circulated beyond the company’s customers or clients. Increasingly, however, that content is online, where it risks being plagiarized. It’s not just text either: it can be photos, videos, and other graphical elements.

    One of the hallmarks of a profession is that it has a code of ethics. Technical communication has such a code (http://www.stc.org/about/ethical-principles-for-technical-communicators.asp) but many practitioners probably aren’t even aware of it. The community needs to take it much more seriously, to the point where it’s a prerequisite for landing a job with any reputable organization.

    I’m looking forward to seeing what else you have to say on the subject.

    Comment by Larry Kunz — November 11, 2010 @ 2:18 pm | Reply

    • Great minds think alike! Part 2 of my post already had a link to the STC code of ethics!

      Comment by heratech — November 12, 2010 @ 8:08 am | Reply

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