Saturday, May 14, 2011

About Blogging, Stealing, Fair Use, and Copyright

I have to interrupt this blog about food for a little rant about blogging.

The really cool thing about blogging is that anyone can start a blog. You don't need to find a publisher or an agent who will print your words. If your topic is obscure, you can draw from a world-wide pool of readers and maybe find an enthusiastic audience.

The bad thing about blogging is that anyone can start a blog. A blogger doesn't have to have a solid grasp of spelling or grammar. Worse yet, a blogger doesn't have to understand the rules of copyright and fair use.

If you've worked in the writing business, you've learned - through schooling or experience - what constitutes a good quote and what is too long or too short. You've learned what fair use means. You've learned what your words are worth, and you've come to respect other people's work the way you would hope other people respect the time and effort that has gone into your own writing.

But bloggers - sigh. Bloggers start blogs and have a dozen great ideas and when they can't think of anything else, they go looking on the web to see what they can use. No one's stopping them from simply copying what they find, whether it's a whole recipe, a pretty photo, or half of an article. There are no editors who will say, "this isn't legal" or "I'm not paying you per-word to copy someone else's work."

Some bloggers think that it's enough to link back to the original source. Sure, links are nice. But not if you're taking a whole post, verbatim, and republishing it. Links are nice when you are "inspired by" or when you have adapted someone else recipes or techniques. Or if you've asked permission in advance.

It's bad enough when I see this sort of thing on individual blogs, because I assume the person hasn't yet learned the rules. Everyone makes mistakes. It irks me a LOT more when I see an article on a group blog where writers are credited (with a byline) for writing a piece. Even if there's no editor or boss, you'd think that the bloggers working together would check each other's work and that at least one of them would have an understanding of copyrights.

A bylined article on a group blog looks a lot like a bylined article in a newspaper or magazine. The assumption is that the writer wrote the article. A second assumption is that the writer got paid in some way for the article. On the Internet, that's not always the case, since a lot of writers are content to write simply for the exposure. But still, in theory the writer is building a portfolio of work that will serve as a stepping-stone to better things. If you're building a portfolio of work, shouldn't it be something you're proud of. Shouldn't it be something you actually wrote?

Today's rant was spurred on by an article I found on a group blog. There were over 400 words in the article. The introduction - the original part - was about 150 words. The rest of it was copied from another source. Sure, there was a link, and the original author's name was mentioned. But when more than half of an article is written by someone else, it doesn't seem right for a writer to put a byline on a piece. Because a byline says, "I wrote this." No, you didn't. You wrote an introduction to someone else's article.

Maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the writer got permission ahead of time to republish large chunks of someone else's article. But in that case, the article should have indicated that it was used with permission. Otherwise it still holds the taint of thievery.

Copyright is pretty clear. Words are copyrighted from the moment they are put down in permanent form, whether it's on paper or in digital media. And that means that if you didn't write it, you don't have the right to copy it and publish it elsewhere, whether it's your own personal blog, or a print or online publication that you contribute to.

Recipes hold a special and nebulous place in copyright law, because lists of ingredients can't be copyrighted. Instructions and preambles and comments are all copyrighted. However, you can't copyright something like, "Cook over low heat, stirring often" because that's too common. But if you add more pizzaz to the instructions, they are copyrighted.

If someone copies an entire set of recipe instructions, even if they're as mundane as "add this - stir that - mix those - bake that," it may not be a copyright violation, but it's still plagiarism.

And then there's fair use. Sigh. It's tricky. It's fair to use part of something if it's being used in a review or critique. How much you can use depends on what it is. If you happen to get a cookbook from a publisher, the assumption is that they want you to review it. When we're talking about cookbooks, that usually means testing a recipe or two and publishing the results - along with the recipe, of course.

The way I look at it is that it's best to err on the side of caution. If you're using a recipe from a book as part of a review, write a long and tasty preface to the recipe, and rewrite the directions. Instead of directly quoting large chunks of text, paraphrase what was said. Intersperse your own comments about what it looked like at various stages or how you were worried that it looked too thick or too thin. Make it your own. Make it personal and unique and interesting.

If you do that, you've been fair to the cookbook publisher, because you've reviewed the book, and you've been fair to the cookbook writer because you haven't directly copied the recipe. You're also fair to your blog readers who get a glimpse at the book along with your opinion and your results. It's a win-win-win for everyone.

Or, depending on the publisher and the agreement you have with them, publish the recipe as it's written and note that it is from the book and used with permission. If you don't know what the publisher wants - ask.

So far, I've been lucky. The people who have written about my recipes for the most part have been fair and honest in the way they've been used. So this isn't about me being miffed about something of mine that has been lifted. Instead, it's more about the disappointment of going to blogs and finding the same recipes, written exactly the same way, on multiple blogs. What's the point?

Here's a hint. If you're publishing a direct copy of what someone else has written, it doesn't take people long to find the original source. Sure, some people don't care. But a lot of people do. But if you give proper credit AND you put your own spin on things, you'll have fans you like you because of the creative things you're doing. Anyone can copy and paste. Only you can be you.

Isn't that what blogging is supposed to be about, anyway?


Jill | Dulce Dough said...

Excellent post! This is a "must read" for all bloggers. You address the gray areas and tell us exactly how to avoid getting into trouble. Thank you!

Unknown said...

I do so agree, there is no individual creativity and I get weary reading the same ol' same ol' so I delete that blog from my bookmarked collection or unsubscribe from e-mail...stimulating the reader with that 'tweaked' twist to an old favorite should be exciting!!!

Jen said...

fantastic post. I think every blogger should read this, I've come across too many "food" blogs where they copy and paste the recipe and the photo from other sites. it's so blantantly obvious because they don't even change the font!

If you actually did, truly make the recipe you post about, you will have little tweaks and tricks that you may have run across. I believe you should ALWAYS gice accreditation for any posted item, whether from a book or another site and don't plagerize. It's going to cost you more than just lost followers.

Donna Currie said...

Jen, you're right about font-changing. I've seen that and it's just so ... odd. I don't see the point in having a blog if you're just running around copying and pasting. It annoys me when I find something like that and there are a dozen comments about how wonderful the recipe is.

It would be funny if someone stole this post though, huh?

Wellington Artist said...

I agree with you whole heartedly! I frequently write and rewrite my posts until I feel they represent me exactly the way I want. If someone were to steal my words they are violating me personally. That is a horrible feeling and very unfair! So glad to have found your wonderful blog which I am now following.

Oh! You Cook! said...

Great article! Can I quote you? *sorry*

A number of years ago a teen emailed me, asking if she could copy some of the info from my (at the time non-food related) site, giving me the url to the one her father set up. I took a look, and except for the colors, names and photos, it was an exact copy of mine. He had totally lifted my entire site! It took a terse letter from my lawyer to get him to remove it. Then remove it again when they snuck it back up.

Donna Currie said...

Dena, I've found a few interesting tools that can help bloggers track down their words and photos on other sites, and also some pretty good instructions on how to get a copyright-infringing site shut down. Maybe I'll work on a post about that. I can understand when someone gets enthusiastic about a recipe and they just want to share the joy, but when someone designs an entire site to be a copy of something else, it simply doesn't make sense. Why go through that trouble?

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