Did you hear the one about the apple pie and the editor? You must have. It was all over the blogosphere this past November. I missed it originally because I was still searching for that elusive light at the end of the tunnel of my house renovation, but when I finally found that light a few weeks ago and turned on my computer to sit back for a while and surf in peace in my newly painted office, I was bombarded.
It seems that five years ago, food writer Monica Gaudio examined how good ol’ American apple pie actually has its roots in medieval Europe in an article that was published on Gode Cookery, a website devoted to medieval food. Fast forward to this fall, when Ms. Gaudio’s friend found that same article in Cooks Source, a regional New England cooking magazine whose editor, it turned out, had lifted the article from the website and used it without permission and without payment. After Ms. Gaudio wrote on her blog about her frustration in dealing with the Cooks Source editor, who seemed to believe that everything on the Internet was public domain, a firestorm erupted. The magazine has now folded, its website and Facebook page have been taken down, and its copyright-unsavvy editor has reportedly left publishing in favor of a career in retail.
My initial reaction was twofold. The editor in me wondered how a publishing professional of 30 years could not have understood copyright law. When the Internet first exploded onto the scene, I was an editor with Avery Publishing Group, a small, privately owned publisher of health books that today is a Penguin Putnam imprint. When the first few manuscripts crossed my desk with material pulled off the Web, I didn’t know how to handle it. Was the material covered by the conventional copyright laws? Did it need permission? No one could definitively answer me. But that was 15 years ago! Today, I look back at those days and slap myself on the forehead. Of course it was covered. How could I have doubted it? And how could a publishing professional with 30 years’ experience like the Cooks Source editor not know that today?
But “The Case of the Purloined Apple Pie” might just be the beginning. With more and more people turning to self-publishing, I’m afraid we’re going to see lots more material used without permission or acknowledgment. We’re already seeing it with blogs and websites. The Women of Mystery have had whole blog posts lifted and I had an entire page of my business website plagiarized.
Most of the people who lift material these days don’t do it intentionally. They just don’t know better. Even when I was at Avery, and later at Kensington Publishing, I had manuscripts handed in by experienced authors that contained huge chunks of “borrowed” material, not only from Internet sources but also from paper books, journals, and magazines. One author of mine went so far as to use most of another book word for word, just sprinkling in his own thoughts and updates here and there. Part of my function as an editor was to catch that. Self-publishers don’t have editors, unless they hire a freelancer, of course, which many don’t do because of the expense.
As a writer, my reaction was: What can writers do? We’re not going to stop writing. We’re not going to stop publishing. We’re not going to stop expressing ourselves on blogs and websites, which make our fingers itch to start keyboarding away. Aside from diligently placing the copyright notice where everyone should be able to see it and asking our friends to keep their eyes open on our behalf, what else is there to do? What do you do?
For anyone who missed the brouhaha over the apple pie article, the How Publishing Really Works blog did an excellent job of presenting the whole story and also provides a ton of links to other articles and blog posts on the subject.