By Henry Ehrlich
A couple of months ago I was informed that a post of mine had shown up on a blog with someone else’s byline. This had never happened to me before to my knowledge, although I have certainly heard about it happening to others. I operate this website like Robinson Crusoe, sitting on the shore putting messages in bottles, throwing them in the ocean, and assuming that someone somewhere is reading them. Occasionally I get some feedback. Now and then I run into a stranger who knows my work and they gush about it, or they don’t like it, but this was new.
In this niche world of Internet publishing most of us make no money. I certainly admire people who manage to do so, but for me, the schemes I have been offered to squeeze a few bucks out of it are not worth the aggravation. It takes many grains of sand to make a beach. Based on what I have seen, the people who own the beach are willing to let me have just enough to get stuck in my sneakers on the way home.
All of us are accustomed to combing the Internet for free information, but the fact that information is accessible 24/7 and without financial cost doesn’t mean it has no value. It has value to those who do the work. The music website Pandora may pay artists a pittance, but at least their names show up when their music is played. The fact that I haven’t managed to monetize my stuff doesn’t mean others are entitled to succeed where I have failed without paying me at very least in the currency of attribution, which might lead to greater notoriety and (perish the thought) more book sales. I happen to think that if you like something someone has written, you look better for the appearance of showing you are alert and open and selfless in advancing the cause of knowledge. You reach out to them and praise them and ask to reprint. If you want to incorporate something they have written into a piece of your own, you cite them and link to them and hope that some day they will return the favor.
Obviously, it doesn’t always work out. Since this situation came to my attention I have been encouraged by people I like and admire to press the issue. They have been burned in similar fashion, sometimes by people I also like and admire.
I didn’t formally assert copyright ownership—litigation is expensive and damages awarded would have to be enormous to cover the time it would take just to press the claim. Highly unlikely in this case. There isn’t any money on the table. In the racetrack of my mind Outrage is in a three-horse race with Bemusement and Amusement. Instead, I determined to see if I could turn what may have been confusion about the rules of attribution and copyright into wider publicity for my work, and maybe even sell some books.
However, I spent a good deal of time thinking about what bloggers should do when someone else has said something they wish they had thought of first.
- Copyright is very particular. Unless otherwise agreed on, it belongs to the author and/or the publisher. In this case they are the same person. It does not belong to the person who is the subject of the article. However, that person is free to use the words attributed to them. Anything between quotation marks can be used by the person who said it or indeed to anyone who wants to cite them. Those who write first-person posts for our website can use their work any way they want, but they also give us credit for publishing it first.
- There is such a thing as fair use, which allows a journalist or scholar—or blogger–to quote a primary source directly. However, it must be attributed, and it can’t be done at too much length so as to suggest they are capitalizing on someone else’s intellectual property. I can quote a line from “Thunder Road” in a review of Bruce Springsteen’s new memoir, but I can’t reprint a whole chapter. The quote must be subordinate to some larger point you are trying to make, rather than substituting for original thinking. I like to cite a source within the copy as well as supply a hyperlink. Some of our contributors who are accustomed to scholarly publication like footnotes.
- If nothing else consider your own reputation. Look what happened when the speechwriter for the former Melania Knauss was caught pinching from the speechwriter for the former Michelle Robinson.
Gutenberg Bible: Harry Ransom Center, UT Austin