The little-known magazine Cooks Source became an Internet pariah last week when it plagiarized a blogger. The plagiarism was bad enough, but then the magazine's editor defended herself with the claim that anything on the Internet is public domain and can be freely copied. The editor even had the gall to tell the writer she should be grateful for the improvements the magazine had made to her article!
It is most definitely not true that anything on the Internet is in the public domain, and multitudes of aggrieved bloggers flooded the magazine's Facebook page with angry and sarcastic commentary.
Cooks Source is an actual print magazine, but the free-wheeling nature of the web has turned a lot of people into amateur publishers who don't necessarily understand the nature of copyright, or fair use, or what's legal to use.
People who create content, be they musicians, writers, artists or what have you, own their works, and they have the legal right to control how those works are used. Sharing something on the Internet, voluntarily or involuntarily, doesn't mean you've given up that right. Stealing intellectual property is just as unethical as stealing merchandise from a store or embezzling from your employer. That includes quoting from someone else's work on your blog or web site.
We've had bloggers plagiarize Times-Gazette news stories, and we've had to explain this to them. Sometimes they claim not to understand what the big deal is.
Some people do choose to share their works a little more freely. Creative Commons (creativecommons.org) is a non-profit organization that has developed special standards and terminology that creators can use to share their work in limited and controlled ways -- for example, giving other bloggers the right to reprint your content as long as they give you credit and as long as they don't make any money off what they're reprinting. If you see something on the Internet with a Creative Commons license, and you'd like to share it on your own blog or web site, make sure you understand what type of license is being claimed (Creative Commons offers several different flavors), and what it allows you to do with the content.
There's also the legal principle of "fair use," which is a little trickier. Fair use allows you to quote very limited excerpts from another work for purposes such as journalism or academic research. It would be illegal for a blogger to reprint an entire book without permission, but fair use may allow that blogger to quote a few sentences from the book, with proper attribution.
But fair use is a matter of degree -- a judgment call. In determining whether or not something is plagiarism or fair use, the courts have to look at a variety of factors. Is the copied material competing with the original product, or does it help promote the sale of the original product? Does the publication doing the copying have a legitimate journalistic or academic purpose? Those are legal issues, and sometimes complicated ones. I'm no attorney, and few of you reading this are either, so we have to tread lightly when assuming that we have protection under fair use.
When the content in which you're interested is available online, it's always safer to link to it than quote from it. Instead of quoting the material on your blog, tell your readers about it and give them the link to go and read it themselves on the original site. It's tempting to try to keep people at your own site by quoting the material, but consider the consequences, and the ethical issues involved.
Meanwhile, other writers -- not to mention the Food Network -- are now investigating the possibility that Cooks Source plagiarized their work as well.
It's a cautionary tale that bloggers and those who maintain web sites are well-advised to keep in mind.
--John I. Carney is city editor of the Times-Gazette and covers county government. He is also the author of the self-published novel "Soapstone." His personal web site is lakeneuron.com.