This week, our own Blogcritics mailing list was abuzz with the issue of copyright infringement. Not the kind that only happens when kids use their grandparents’ computers to download the latest Black Eyed Peas tune; but the darker kind, namely: taking the work of an author, say, a talented Blogcritics contributor, and reprinting that work, under your own name, without proper attribution.
This is a topic that is near and dear to the hearts of journalists, and as a result, one that doesn’t often get very balanced coverage. As writers, we believe that our creative work is sacred, and the United States, and International Law assures us that we retain certain rights in that work, including the rights to copy, alter, and distribute the work. In order to get published though, we often have to give up some of those rights, to let the websites, journals, and publications printing our work do their thing.
One of the side effects of this process, at least in the blogosphere, is that our creative works are distributed via feeds to loads of other sites and individuals who, in turn, reprint the feeds in their own formats.
To a certain extent, bloggers acknowledge this when they publish a work on a site with syndicated feeds (a la Blogcritics.org). In fact, part of why we write is to reach the largest possible audience; heavy syndication and high marks on social bookmarking sites like Digg, Reddit, and Technorati, are exactly what we want.
However, one of the problems we run into when dealing with this incredibly loose flow of works, is the potential dilution of authorship. In its simplest form, it may be that the author of a work is not immediately apparent; however, most feeds link back to the original source. More troubling however, is the out-and-out lifting of one author’s work and the reprinting under a different name (by troubling, I mean rolled-up newspaper across the nose bad).
This is of course, a very bad thing, and the toad who steals someone else’s work for their own, should be sent to bed without supper. As an author though, what can you really do about it?
1. Protect your blog to begin with.
How you go about this depends largely on whether you’re a contributor to a larger site that handles your formatting, or you run your own blog. If you run your blog via WordPress, your job is easier.
This plugin by Angsuman Chakraborty, adds a copyright tag to your RSS and Atom feeds; just set it up, and forget about it. If you aren't a WordPress user, the bottom line is that you want to include a direct copyright notification in your blog’s tag. Additionally, if you don’t want anyone to publish the full contents of your article without your permission, publish only the summary feed, instead of the full-text feed.
Personally, I’m only a limited fan of the summary feed idea, as long as your work is properly attributed. It really depends on how important it is for you to drive traffic back to your site. That being said, your publisher might look at this differently, in which case, the summary-feed is fantastic.
2. Defend your rights.
Invariably, your work will end up somewhere it doesn’t belong. Some fantastic ideas for keeping track of your work, and combating infringers came out of the Blogcritics discussion. To figure out where your work is being printed, you can put a unique quote from your work into the advanced search in Google or Yahoo, both on the subject line, and where it says: "articles that include this exact phrase" (thanks, Jet). You can also use Copyscape, which will work some search magic, based on your article's URL (thanks, Gem).
Instead of re-writing what has already been said better, check out ”What to Do When Someone Steals Your Content,” by Lorelle VanFossen. It is simply a profoundly useful document. As a lawyer I’m hard-wired to cringe when someone says we’re not needed, but, for the most part, I agree. It just takes time and determination to protect your rights. There are simply too many bloggers out there and in turn, too many sites reprinting material (with varying copyright restrictions), to get lawyers involved in every case.
I do think a lawyer is still a good idea if the infringement has caused you a financial loss. We lawyers tend to be good with the whole “damages” concept.
There’s also a totally philosophical element to all of this.
When we publish a blog that is in turn submitted to feeds, which in turn offer individuals the ability to receive real-time updates of what’s being written about the issues they care about as they’re published, we implicitly part with some of the rights that are traditionally associated with copyright. It can be argued that from the moment you allow your blog to ping any site, such as Technorati (which has a well written summary of their policy concerning works governed by the DMCA), et al., you inevitably lose the ability to control where your post ends up.
From the perspective of a site administrator, they would be hard-pressed to interrupt a particular feed to analyze the copyright of each post, and to exclude those posts which do not give explicit permission for reprinting on their page (even trying to explain it is a mouthful). That being said, they should still oblige the copyright holder who notifies them of an infringing work on their site, and remove the work, if asked.
The Internet is changing the nature of copyright, as it is changing the way we collect, share, and use information as a society. Some proponents of copyright reform, have taken an idealist approach to this change, with the mantra: information wants to be free. Others have fiercely fought the change, threatening that if the current trend continues, art will disappear, creativity will collapse, and this basket of puppies will be run over by a train. (For a fantastic overview, see Vaidhyanathan, Siva “The State of Copyright Activism”).
The truth, as always, is somewhere in the middle. As writers, and as bloggers, we are a new breed of authors. We have made our voice heard, and have already begun reshaping the world of information. Major media outlets, and brick and mortar media like Newsweek run segments on what we’re saying. Stories are broken by independent bloggers, elections are shaped, and devil-worshipping high school girls are outed for the 19-year-old would-be starlets they are.
How we choose to shape copyright is no different. We’re not only redefining how information is used, but what value it carries. To major media outlets, this is scary stuff; to one another, and to our readers, it’s an exciting time to be informed. But we have to strike a balance between the access widening purpose we serve, and the attribution and credit we deserve.
My suggestion is this: If a writer quotes you, be flattered, and be active, contribute to the dialogue. If a site reprints your article, make sure they link back to the original, and give you proper credit for your work. But, if they have an identity crisis, and think that they’re you, follow the steps in Lorelle’s excellent article. When you’re done with all of that, kick back, read some blogs, and remember, it’s an exciting time to be copied.