An American Editor

November 10, 2010

The Internet and Free: A Problem That Will Grow

Cook’s Source magazine has been the topic of conversation in recent days for grabbing a copyrighted article written by Monica Gaudio off the Internet and publishing it without permission or compensation. When Ms. Gaudio complained, she was told that she should be thankful Cook’s Source “improved” the article by editing it and then publishing it with attribution. Cook’s Source‘s editor wrote:

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!

Ignoring the grammatical errors in the Cook’s Source response, which, considering he thinks Ms. Gaudio should pay him for his editing, adds insult to injury, the real question is whether Cook’s Source is simply reflecting a viewpoint that is becoming more commonplace among Internet users.

There has been a lot of uproar in recent years regarding software, book, music, and video “piracy.” On one side of the argument are the copyright holders whose works are “pirated,” and on the other are the consumers who do the “pirating.” (We need to be careful about using the term pirating or piracy because its use implies that the act is wrong. I want to use it here in a more neutral sense, the sense that it is simply a descriptor of action not a conclusion as to whether the action is right or wrong.)

Are the Internet and the posting of material online changing expectations? From what I observe of “consumer” attitudes, the answer is yes. Increasingly, Internet users expect these things to be free and freely usable — a phenomenon that seems to have an inverse relationship to the user’s age; increasingly, copyright has only meaning between companies and not between copyright holders and consumers.

The situation is exacerbated, at least in ebook world, by agency pricing and DRM. I suspect that there is less piracy of books that fall closer to the low-price-DRM-free side of the curve than of books that fall closer to the high-price-DRM side of the curve. The situation is also exacerbated by such things as YouTube and Wikipedia, both of which encourage sharing and free use. Consumers become accustomed to free use of intellectual property. There is also the problem of a decline in understanding among the general population of what constitutes intellectual property that is protectable and why it should be protectable. Is there any reason other than corporate greed to keep extending the protection life of Mickey Mouse?

Ask a teenager whether the sweater in Macy’s is free (or should be free) and the response usually is no, it costs money. Ask the same teenager whether the text on the Internet is free (or should be free) and the answer turns 180 degrees. The major difference, at least for books and text, is that to the upcoming generations words shouldn’t cost because no one owns them. When the discussion turns to copyright, they are either befuddled or they are familiar enough with copyright to say that it was OK to protect words when the protection was limited but with today’s extensions that make the protection nearly permanent, copyright has no meaning. Besides fair use is in such a state of disarray that few people have any understanding of where it ends. (I know of several publishers who unilaterally declare that x number of words constitutes fair use, with x changing depending on the book and the publisher. Of course, x applies to words quoted from books from other publishers, not from their books.)

If you think about it, the protection extensions in copyright law are contrary to capitalism and free market thinking. Society is willing to tolerate a limited extension, but not an extension that makes it more or less a permanent monopoly. Although Monica Gaudio is right that her work is protected by copyright, Cook’s Source is simply reflecting the capitalist-free market position that when copyright exists into absurdity (i.e., forever), it should be viewed as not existing at all.

This dilemma will never be resolved absent a recognition by the producers of copyrighted material that they are encouraging consumers to pirate their work by their demand for never-ending and increasingly restrictive protection. Consumers look at the ever-narrowing of their rights and take the only tack they can — they ignore the restrictions. The Republicans say that the midterm elections demonstrate that the Democrats don’t hear the people, perhaps the Republicans should listen to the voice of the consumer and reverse course on the DMCA and copyright laws — instead of pushing for increased protections and more onerous burdens on the consumer, they should push for a return to the original limits and a more relaxed view of fair use and what consumers can do with material they have legitimately bought.

6 Comments »

  1. […] by Rich Adin […]

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    Pingback by The Internet and Free: A Problem That Will Grow — November 10, 2010 @ 8:18 am | Reply

  2. The Cooks Source “editor” was apparently a she – Judith Griggs.

    I put scare quotes around editor because this was clearly someone who knew nothing of one of the most basic tenets of publishing – copyright. I see Cooks Source as reflecting a combination of arrogance and ignorance that are all-too-common in these days of “anyone can be a publisher.” If behavior like this is common on college campuses, it’s because students assume anything they see on the Internet is free for the taking – which it isn’t – and don’t know the meaning of plagiarism. Somehow, somewhere, the notion that putting your name to someone else’s work is OK has got to be stopped. As with so many other things in life, just because lots of people do something (that is wrong) is not a reason for everyone to do it.

    The one good thing about the Cooks Source episode is that many people have been reminded – or taught – that copyrighted material may not be hijacked with impunity. How long or how well that lessons lasts is anyone’s guess. Probably ’til tomorrow …

    I’d love to see the original vs. the version that Griggs supposedly edited. Based on her message and subsequently lame apology from the site, I doubt there was any improvement.

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    Comment by Ruth E. Thaler-Carter — November 10, 2010 @ 8:33 am | Reply

  3. I agree that an enormous number of people simply don’t know that copyright means something other than attribution. The issue of control or permission never crosses their mind, especially with regard to material that they never paid to see or hear.

    Regardless of our position on the optimum length of copyright, educating the public that it exists, and about the basics of its tenets, is a task that we should all try to accomplish. Until recently, the public didn’t need to know — they had very little ability to violate the rules. Now that technology has spread the ability, so should our attempts to make the limits understood.

    And in 99% of the violations, the duration of copyright truly isn’t an issue. Very little is copied, shared, or re-published that’s more than a few years old. Mickey Mouse is a lovely banner to wave, but it’s generally irrelevant, as is the difference between 20 years and life+70.

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    Comment by Marion Gropen — November 10, 2010 @ 10:17 am | Reply

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jose Afonso Furtado and Fran Ontanaya, Kate Epstein. Kate Epstein said: http://ht.ly/37C0H Interesting but not convincing to argue that extending copyright cause piracy. Most people don't know how long co lasts! […]

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    Pingback by Tweets that mention The Internet and Free: A Problem That Will Grow « An American Editor -- Topsy.com — November 10, 2010 @ 12:42 pm | Reply

  5. […] a writer’s work without credit or compensation, then said it was ok that they did so because everything on the interwebz is public domain. Whoops. Smart Bitches lists some lessons that can be learned from the […]

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    Pingback by Stumbling Over Chaos :: The Return of Linkity!! Now with even more linkity!! — November 12, 2010 @ 3:03 am | Reply

  6. You are to some degree comparing apples and oranges: A text on the Internet is free to read—copying the text is another matter entirely. I admit that you have some justification, in that many surfers are likely to miss this distinction, but you would be a greater help in clarifying the issue if you drew clear lines.

    Your statement “Increasingly, Internet users expect these things to be free and freely usable […]” is also potentially misleading: I have actually seen some who believe (or claim) that the Internet used to be based on payment for this-and-that, with a “degeneration” taking place over the last few years. However, the Internet was more free-of-charge in its early days than today, the trend goes towards more payment, and many of the old guard are abhorred at the commercialization, the incessant advertizing, and puzzled at why people want payment for things that others give away for free. What can be argued is that the free-of-charge wish is increasingly extended to things (e.g. movies) that used to be distributed through other channels.

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    Comment by michaeleriksson — November 13, 2010 @ 7:20 am | Reply


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