Cooks Source learns public lesson about Internet, public domain and copyright, sort of

The Cooks Source story that exploded on the web this past week is one of victory for every writer whose work has ever been plagiarized.  It started when Monica, a food writer, discovered that a previously published article she had written had appeared in Cooks Source magazine, edited but recognizable, without her consent. When she sent an email to the magazine asking for an apology and compensation in the form of a donation to the Columbia School of Journalism (where hopefully topics like copyright infringement are covered) she got this jaw-dropping response from editor Judith Griggs (as quoted on Monica’s LiveJournal page):

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! [emphasis added]

It’s a masterpiece of passive-aggressive communication: hey, your article was there for the taking and we even edited for you! Be grateful!

But as bloggers soon revealed, Monica wasn’t only victim of the old copy-and-paste due to “tired eyes” scanning the “public domain” for material. They seemed to make it a regular editorial practice, in most cases failing to obtain the proper copyright permissions.

Writers took to the magazine’s Facebook page immediately, filling it with flames. Someone set up a fake Twitter account to organize notes around the scandal, and now there’s even a Youtube parody of Griggs’ letter to Monica. The Cooks Source webpage has been replaced by a long diatribe masquerading as a half-hearted apology with excuses (“…it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff. We have made a donation at her request, to her chosen institution, the Columbia School of Journalism … It should be noted that Monica was given a clear credit for using her article within the publication, and has been paid in the way that she has requested to be paid”) and defensiveness. The magazine claims it will now credit all sources and get proper consent for writing and illustrations, but I guess only when it’s convenient because “Cooks Source can not vouch for all the writers we have used in the past, and in the future can only check to a certain extent.”

Unfortunately, I don’t think Cooks Source has learned its lesson, focusing more on their own hurt and harassment more than the feelings and rights of people whose copyrights they’ve infringed upon. Unfortunately, they’re not the only ones out there who doesn’t understand that just because it’s on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free or for the taking. You’d think a publisher might understand copyright law better than the average content mill sneak or term paper cheater. I think almost any writer, myself included, who has put work on the Web somewhere has had it ripped off by someone. And boy, does it feel good to be able to call the offender on it, although usually it doesn’t go as public as this.

This is one case where it probably would have been easier to get permission(s) than forgiveness.

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3 thoughts on “Cooks Source learns public lesson about Internet, public domain and copyright, sort of

  1. Pingback: World Spinner
  2. thirtysomethinggrad says:

    I don’t know why, but I was really shocked that this editor at Cooks Source thought that anything on the Internet was theirs for the taking, without getting permission. Perhaps even more shocking though, is that they didn’t limit themselves to stealing from “the little guy.” Indeed, blogger Edward Champion notes that the Internet community has found several other articles that she allegedly stole from places like Food Network and NPR. We need to educate young people about how to ethically use the Internet for research, but I would have thought a professional journalist would understand that this kind of behavior is unacceptable.

    The link to Edward Champion’s article is below:
    http://www.edrants.com/the-cooks-source-scandal-how-a-magazine-profits-on-theft/

  3. maikopunk says:

    Yes, exactly – you would think that a professional would know better than to think simply because she can cut and paste from the Internet doesn’t mean she should. From Judith Griggs communication style, it seemed she had an ego out of control and kind of deserved an attitude adjustment.

    But also, when it comes to recipes, copyright is a little murky. You can’t copyright a recipe itself, but the way it’s presented can be. It’s also interesting that what Cooks Source stole, they gave attribution to, but just didn’t bother with getting permission. Never mind compensation – that’s just common courtesy.

    I also read your post on copyright and Creative Commons – very clearly laid out. Thanks for stopping by!

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