Saturday, November 13, 2010

Copyright, Cooks Source, and Contests

If you've missed the recent Cooks Source debacle, let me summarize. A small magazine published an article they found online. When the writer of the article found out, she contacted the magazine. The magazine issued a snarky response about how everything on the Internet was public domain. So there. Pffft.

A virtual firestorm of ensued, with tweets and blog posts and Facebook fury. It all got a little out of hand, with random people calling the magazine's advertisers and bombarding their email addresses. Many innocent electrons were sacrificed to make the point that copyright is assumed unless right are specifically handed over. The Internet is not Public Domain, although it is the domain of the public. And sometimes the public becomes an angry mob.

Cooks Source apologized. Whether this will suffice to keep them out of further trouble, it's hard to say. Not only did this publication use one writer's article, it seems they used a lot of articles as-is from a lot of sources including NPR, Martha Stewart, Food Network, and others. Whether there was permission to use them, I don't know, but it seems unlikely for a lot of reasons. Whether it might have been considered "fair use" is another argument.

But that's not the point I'm meandering to. The point I'm interested in at the moment is whether bloggers (and food bloggers in particular) really care about the rights to their own work. How many bloggers are just doing this for grins and giggles and how many are hoping - however fruitlessly - that they will be the Next Big Thing and get offered a book contract, a movie deal, or a TV show?

Bloggers who have any background in writing probably know that their creations are copyrighted from the moment of creation. So there's some security in that. Recipes, however, are not protected, in terms of the list of ingredients and the basic instructions. There are only so many ways you can say, "cream the butter and sugar..." so that sort of thing isn't protected. The prose around the recipe and any unique language used in writing the recipes are protected. So some of it is safe, and some is unprotected by its very nature.

That's mostly unclear as mud so far, right? 

But still, most food bloggers who have writing background and aspire to the Next Big Thing probably hope that if fame ever sneaks up upon them, they will be able to use the backlog of recipes they have amassed on their blogs. If they formulated the recipes and wrote the prose around it, they should be able to use their own recipes however they see fit, particularly if someone comes along and offers them a big burlap bag full of money and a shiny new cookbook contract, right?

Makes sense. You wrote it, you own it unless you give it away.

Sure. But that's a big "unless" lurking on the page.

Are some bloggers giving it away? I'm not talking about technical errors or pages that don't display copyrights or lack of copyright registration. The fact that copyright exists from the moment of creation takes care of most of that when it comes time to sell the publication rights.

The problem is that bloggers might be actively giving away their content. Giving permission. Handing it over. For nothing. No recompense. Nada.

How? Are these bloggers being duped? No not really. It's all in the fine print. If said blogger has entered any contests and has clicked the "I agree to the terms and conditions" button without reading, this might be what was hidden behind the button:

By submitting any content, you simultaneously and automatically grant a worldwide, royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable, non-exclusive, fully sub-licensable and transferable right and license to use, record, sell, lease, reproduce, distribute, create derivative works based upon, publicly display, publicly perform, transmit, publish and otherwise exploit the submitted content as we, in our sole discretion, deem appropriate. We may exercise this grant in any format, media or technology now known or later developed.

I've seen this same boilerplate text on several sites and in print contracts. Basically, by simply submitting to a contest, you could be granting all rights that exist now and forevermore.

If Betty Crocker or the Food Network or the Pillsbury Doughboy knocked on my door and handed me a briefcase full of twenties for the rights to one of my recipes, I'd sign the papers, take the post off of my blog, and promise to never republish it without their permission. 

I see nothing wrong with selling the rights to my writing. Sheesh, it's how I get paid outside the world of blogging. I write, someone pays me, they get the right to publish. Although, admittedly, everyone I write food articles for now has agreed that I have the right to republish anywhere I want, as long as it's not a competing publication.

But if I'm handing out rights, I want something in return, besides the joy of entering a contest.

Okay, maybe I'd give up one recipe to a recipe contest if the prize was big and prestigious. But in that case, I'd be handing over a formula that isn't copyrightable anyway, so it's not like I'd be giving away a heck of a lot.

But considering how many contests demand the same sort of rights I detailed up above, a blogger could give up a lot of rights just by posting recipes to a site that's hosting contests. The bloggers get nothing in return, and in a year the site owns a huge number of recipes that could be compiled into a cookbook. "Yay!" the bloggers say, "My recipe is being published in a cookbook!" Which is fine for the ego but does nothing to pay the bills. And I doubt that publication credits like that are very impressive to future editors and publishers.

"What's the big deal?" you might say. It's only one recipe. The big deal is that someone's making money from that publication, or they wouldn't do it. The contributors should get a share. Let's put it this way - I had a short story published in a paperback anthology in 1993, and I still occasionally get a royalty check. At this point it's pretty insignificant, but it's still recognition of my contribution. People who give up all rights to their recipes will never see a dime from them, unless they're one of the lucky ones who wins the contest.

Of course, while the bloggers are giving away their rights merely by submitting something to a contest, the contest holders are saying things like this: 

You must not use, copy, collect, reproduce, alter, distribute, create derivative works based upon, publish, sell, publicly display or otherwise exploit any information or content ...

So, hmmmm... you handed over your rights, and now you can't even create derivative works based on your own content that you just gave them. That's a little restrictive, isn't it?
I've entered a couple contests recently, and lemme tell you, I hemmed and hawed and made sure I wasn't handing over anything I was unwilling to part with. 
Kitchen Play has a nice thing going where you don't even give them your recipe, you blog about it and links go back and forth. It's a good deal even if you don't win anything, since the links bring people to your site.
Okay, the fact that I won something in their first contest makes it a little nicer. But, heck, it was the kind of contest I like to enter. Cook, blog, link. Easy peasy.

Then I found Foodie Blogroll which sponsors contests for members. For some contest, you blog about stuff and link. For others you tweet or "like" sponsor pages on Facebook or make comments about the company products. Some people might scoff and say that all that linking and tweeting and liking is free advertising for the site and the sponsors. Well, yeah. But I won't be jumping on the bandwagon for products and companies I don't like. And heck, I link to companies and products that I like, whether there's anything in it for me or not. Yanno, like the links I put in this post.
I like entering contests. They're fun. In the past, I entered contests that required entry fees, and those fees funded the prizes. Now, sponsors are looking for clicks and tweets. I don't see a problem with that. A link or a tweet or a "like," particularly if it's a site or a company that I actually do like, is very little to ask for. Much better than giving up all rights to my work.

Oh, and if you were wondering what the photo has to do with this post. Nothing. I just like it.