The web was buzzing last week with news that a small freebie magazine, Cooks Source, had allegedly committed a copyright violation by publishing a writer’s apple pie recipe and article without asking her permission. Edward Champion provided a synopsis of the entire incident and discovered quite a few other possible violations.

The magazine’s dubious actions would have been bad enough, but the editor further inflamed the situation by her arrogant and clueless response to the original author. The editor wrote,

“I have been doing this for 3 decades,…I do know about copyright laws….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!…” (excerpts)

She refused to apologize or compensate the author, instead saying,

“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.… We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me!”

It’s too late for this editor, but we can learn some lessons from her disgrace.

Understand copyright.

The U.S. Copyright Office at the Library of Congress has an easy-to-understand Frequently Asked Questions section that explains basic copyright principles:

  • The moment you create a work and fix it in tangible form, that is, perceptible directly or online, your work is under copyright protection.
  • Original writings, artwork, photographs and other forms of authorship on a website are protected upon creation.
  • Unpublished work is protected.
  • The © symbol is not required for copyright protection.
  • Although your work may be protected, you can only sue for copyright infringement if your work is registered with the U.S. Copyright Office.
  • The web is NOT public domain. Public domain is not a place. Public domain applies to works with expired copyrights, generally 70 years after the author’s death, or work that fails to meet requirements for copyright protection, for example, facts, ideas or methods of operation.
  • Under the fair use doctrine, you can use limited portions of a work, including quotes, for commentary, criticism and news reporting. An example of commentary that falls under the fair use doctrine are the editor’s quotes that I use above. By linking back to Monica’s website, readers have access to the original work.

Additional copyright resources:

copyright basics blogger blogging

flickr photo by 5tein

Get to know Creative Commons.

I use Creative Commons licensed photographs on my two blogs. Before you use a Creative Commons licensed work, find out which type of license applies. All of them require that you give attribution to the original author. Some give permission to alter a work, some won’t. Some do not allow commercial publication, some do.

Find photos on Flickr by using their search tool for Creative Commons licensed photos.  Flickr provides an explanation of the different types of Creative Commons licenses used on their site. You can find out whether there are usage restrictions on a photo by clicking on “Some rights reserved” under License. The license will always require that you give credit to those who share their work freely with you, either with their real name or Flickr username. You may also be required to link back to the original photo; if not, it’s good social media karma to do so.

Use Google Alerts for monitoring.

Monica found out about her copyright infringement because a friend saw her article and congratulated her on the publication. She wasn’t the only one surprised; other authors were not aware that their work was being used by Cooks Source, even though it appeared online. If they had created Google Alerts and other alerts for their name, they would have found out much earlier.

My recent post, Social Media Monitoring, explains how to find out if your name or blog is mentioned online.

I’m not a copyright expert, like many of you, I continue to learn. The last thing I want to do is unfairly take advantage of someone else’s original work, time and energy.

UPDATE: Since we’re all following along, Cooks Source released a statement on what is left of their website. (4:55pm, November 9, 2010)