In case you missed last week’s Internet kerfuffle involving Cooks Source magazine and stolen content, here’s a quick summary:
- A blogger finds out a piece she wrote a long time ago has appeared in a magazine — without her permission.
- She contacts the magazine asking for an apology.
- Magazine editor instead tells her content published to the Web is “public domain,” that she should be thankful they left her name in place as the author and that she “improved” the original piece with a number of rewrites.
- The story hits the Internet, and thousands of people swarm the Cooks Source Facebook page with protest comments (many of which are really very funny).
- Meanwhile, people start taking a closer look at the magazine, and discover that it has also published — without permission — content from sources like Food Network and Wikipedia.
How does this story end? My guess is “not well” for Judith Griggs and Cooks Source magazine. Stealing from largely anonymous blogs is one thing… lifting content from deep-pocketed entities like Scripps Networks is quite another.
There’s a lesson or two to be learned from all of this.
Lesson One: Stealing is Bad
I suspect most of you know this… but stealing is frowned upon in most polite societies. As my second-grader’s CCD teacher would say, stealing is “not a loving choice.”
Unfortunately, the Internet makes some theft really easy… and I’m not just talking about Nigerian lottery scams. It takes practically no effort to go to someone’s web site, cut-and-paste the content into a blog post, put your name at the top and call it a day. That doesn’t make it right. And if your own moral code isn’t enough to dissuade you from swiping content, just Google “Judith Griggs” and see what this particular episode has done to one woman’s reputation.
That said, excerpting and referring to content on other sites is one of the most important functions of the Internet. You won’t have much luck running a web site that never refers to or links to content elsewhere on the web. But there’s an art to it.
When I was writing sports news updates for RotoWire.com, we used a format along these lines:
Eddy Curry could return to practice on Monday, the New York Daily News reports. Curry has been sidelined since training camp with a hamstring injury. Even if healthy, he is not expected to be a big part of the Knicks’ rotation this season.
In other words… give the news, give the source of the news, and then give a few words as to why that news is relevant — give the link some context, as opposed to just linking to what others have said.
Context is key. Even in those situations where you’re posting a bit of content that will appear on hundreds of sites — embedding a YouTube video, for example — putting a few words with it that put your own spin on the information you’re sharing can make your version stand out.
Lesson Two: Protecting Yourself
So now you know how to avoid becoming the next Judith Griggs. How do you avoid becoming the next Judith Griggs’ next victim?
The fact is, if you’ve been writing for the Internet for any length of time, the odds that you’ve already been victimized are approximately one in one. But there are things you can do to protect yourself.
To start, you’ll need to figure out whether or not your content has been lifted, and by whom.
- Use Google Alerts – a tremendously useful service, Google Alerts will tell you when any new content appears on the Internet that matches search terms you set. Create an alert for your name, your company name, your URL, etc.
- Use CopyScape – CopyScape is a service that “crawls” your site and matches your content against what it is seeing on other sites. You can run a scan manually, or sign up for a service that will alert you when it finds a match.
If you do find someone using your content without your permission, the best thing to do is simply contact the owner of the offending website with a “hey, I noticed you’re using my story…” note.
If that doesn’t work, you have other options. Here’s an excellent rundown via the Lorelle on WordPress blog.