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



  1. You make a lot of good points here, Julie. The one that sticks with me is the danger that “user-generated content” is actually copyrighted material that’s been reproduced illegally.

    Is the problem that the technology is outrunning our ability to set up appropriate safeguards? Or is the problem that no one cares enough to worry about safeguarding content because, after all, anyone can write?

    I hope that a lot of my technical communication colleagues will jump into this discussion.

    Comment by Larry Kunz — November 12, 2010 @ 12:43 pm | Reply

    • I think that part of the problem is that people honestly think that copyright only applies to print, but not to the internet. Witness the large numbers of people illegally downloading music, movies, books, and other media.

      The issue of copyright comes up quite frequently in the historical costuming community, because many judged events require that the entrant provide documentation to educate the judges about their entries. So a lot of the same research gets handed around, sometimes with credit given, often times not. It’s a small community, so the old timers tend to recognize when newbies are presenting someone’s work without crediting them. And the more internet savvy folks keep an eye on their own content.

      Comment by heratech — November 12, 2010 @ 8:07 pm | Reply

  2. I think it’s a technology issue. I think the technology exists to make it easy to lift and repost content, but it does not yet exist to make it easy to protect your own content.
    There’s really a broad spectrum of behaviors, only a few of which are bad-intentioned. But the innocent cases are so common in our life today that there’s (IMO) no turning back – in the Information Age, we swim in a sea of information and use it as needed in the pursuit of goals that may be only remotely related to the individual bits of content we use.
    I think the solution must be a technological one, one that makes it easy for people to protect or unprotect their content as needed.

    Comment by john — November 17, 2010 @ 3:04 pm | Reply

  3. My greatest source of frustration as a technical writer is the idea that “anyone” can write.

    Comment by Linda McCurry — May 16, 2013 @ 2:20 pm | Reply

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