I’m late to the party… the one where you stand by the side of the road watching a car wreck.
I learned about the Cooks Source plagiarism fiasco a little more than 24 hours ago, when there were a mere 300 or so comments on Cooks Source’s Facebook page, before NPR, the Guardian (UK), Washington Post and LA Times blogs, and other heavy hitters had yet weighed in. Before the company’s Facebook comments were deleted. Before the Internet went mad.
My tardiness is due simply to disbelief: I’ve spent a good part of my idle time in the last 24 hours wondering if this can all possibly be true. To summarize, a blogger named Monica Gaudio wrote that she found out that an article she’d written on the history of apple pie had been lifted by Cooks Source, a little-known local cooking and recipe magazine (the kind you pick up for free when you spend $100 on a gourmet skillet at a specialty chef’s shop).
So what’s the big deal? Plagiarism is rampant on the Internet. Just go to Youtube. Go almost anywhere. Writers can work through their frustration and aggression all day long just by writing DMCA complaints and sending cease and desist letters. Sure, it stinks, but it’s not like it’s news.
Plagiarism: As American as a Stolen Article About Apple Pie
Here’s Monica’s recounting of what happened next. To summarize: Learning of the unauthorized use of her article, Monica asked for modest compensation (an apology and $130 — which works out to roughly 10 cents a word – to be donated to the Columbia University School of Journalism). She was met by a response that I thought couldn’t be real. According to Monica, the editor replied, among other things, that ”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!”
The editor also claimed 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!” (sic for the whole paragraph)
(And, while we’re on the subject of sic: Cooks Source has no apostrophe. Not only that, but in her letter, the editor claimed to have edited another magazine, Housitonic Home. I happen to live seven miles from the HOUSATONIC River, and no, “Housitonic” is not some kind of acceptable alternate spelling. So here is an editor writing an error-strewn note to critique the work she allegedly stole, who can’t even title her magazines correctly? Even my spell and grammar checks are picking up these two mistakes.)
A New Cooks Source Recipe: How to Piss Off the Internet
The reply combined arrogance, ignorance, and plagiarism — which meant that in a single paragraph, one heretofore unknown editor managed to piss off what seems like the entire creative Internet community. In the last 24 hours, the Internet has gone mad. The last time I looked (last night) there were more than 2500 posts on the magazine’s Facebook page; this morning, the company had shut them down, but the furor goes on with other posts on blogs and websites popping up every few sections on my Google news feed. By the time I get this posted, it’ll probably land on Google SERPs page 962. The formerly obscure magazine’s name is among Google’s top 20 trending subjects.
I understand the furor: We’re all fed up with editors who don’t respond, who pay late, who don’t uphold their contracts. The industry is in a tailspin. And we’ve had it up to HERE with plagiarizers. So here comes this small potatoes editor with her two-bit freebie magazine, who hits all the wrong notes, combining condescension with ignorance (always a bad combination) and throwing in disrespect for copyright law and our creative work. She might as well have poured gasoline over her head and lit a match.
And Then the Posse Rode Into Town
It’s all a little like an old movie western, with the vigilantes riding out for justice: The Facebook brigade approached the magazine’s advertisers, some of whom pulled their ads. Posses went out looking for other examples of plagiarism, figuring that if the editor truly believed that “everything on the Internet is public domain,” she probably acted on that belief more than once. Sho ’nuff: Stories from the Food Network, NPR, Martha Stewart, and Disney were uncovered.
And here’s the thing: If Monica is like the majority of Internet writers, the copyright notice she stuck on her article was as far as she went to protect her work. For full statutory damages, you have to file your work with the U.S. Copyright office. I’m guessing Monica didn’t — but you can bet that Martha files copyright. And the Mouse. And statutory damages for theft of a registered copyrighted work can add up to tens of thousands of dollars, or more.
So I’m left to ask: Can this be for real? The utter ignorance about copyright, the laughable grammar, the arrogance, and even worse, putting it all in writing? I’ve been taken in by a few Internet scam stories (you know, those Snopes-type stories where Itzhak Perlman plays a violin concerto with only three strings and so on). But here, the only explanations I can come up with are colossal stupidity or a hoax.
We’ve not yet heard from the magazine. If there is another side to this story, we’ve yet to learn what it is. Reporters’ calls have gone unanswered. Is there a possibility we’ve all been hoodwinked? I suppose there is, although for the life of me I can’t imagine what the rationale would be. And what does this say about the juggernaut power and the mob-like vigilantes roused by an Internet gone mad? It sure seems like the good guys won in this case… but what about next time?