Stealing is Still Stealing, Even if It’s Easy

There has been a disturbing increase in theft online lately, of True and other material.

I recently “caught” the owner of a joke list ripping off stories from True. The “author” of the list seems to think anything on the Internet is free and available for use, not only taking it and using it, but deleting the title, authorship, and copyright information!

This list owner isn’t the only one: a friend of mine who runs a popular list is having trouble with infringement by a radio station and, unbelievably, a major metro newspaper who took the text by accident/sloppy research, but threatened to not provide proper credit when it was pointed out to them that it was copyrighted text.

I don’t think much of this is malicious (though some clearly is). Rather, I think it stems from the sudden “power” involved in being able to publish so easily on the Internet, whether or not you understand the responsibilities involved. And, of course, it comes from a complete lack of knowledge of copyright law and the ethics behind it.

But the law does apply: publishing online is in fact publishing, and such publishers are liable for what they publish — including libel and copyright infringement, which has significant civil and criminal penalties attached.

What to Do

So here’s what I would ask when you see something on other sites or lists that you know was taken from another author. First, tell the site/list owner the source of the material! He or she may not know, and may be entirely ethical and want to give authors proper credit, and, if appropriate, delete the copyrighted material from their archives. This happens especially when the list takes submissions from readers.

Second, if you know such repostings are prohibited and know where they came from (for instance, True stories — but there are many other such examples), tell the author so they can follow up with the person who is infringing! The easy way to do it: BCC (blind copy) the copyright owner when you notify the infringing site.

That happens here all the time: it’s how I found out about the list I talked about above. Include the text (if from an email) or the URL (if it’s on the web) so both the infringer and the owner know exactly what you’re talking about.

And be polite! First, you’re doing them (and me) a favor by raising the issue, and second, you could be wrong! Sometimes people report “infringements” only to have me reply and say “That’s not my stuff.” Better to be polite than to stick your foot in your mouth too firmly.

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For more info on my copyright and allowable uses of True, see my Copyright FAQ. Oh, and be sure to spell “copyright” correctly! The word addresses the RIGHT to COPY and has nothing to do with the word “write”!

1 Comment on “Stealing is Still Stealing, Even if It’s Easy

  1. I sometimes wonder if the mistake modern day copyright violators make isn’t thinking that anything on the internet is in the public domain, but rather thinking that journalistic output has no value once it has been created, or even forgetting that journalists are doing work by that act of creation… After all, you pointed out more than four years earlier, in Hail to the Press that people who really should know better didn’t think to refer to you as an author of your work…


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