The Web is Most Definitely Not Public Domain

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It was posted to LiveJournal, then Reddit blew it up, and it ultimately landed on Consumerist. What is “it,” you ask? “It” is the story of a little print-magazine that lifted a story from an even littler person’s website and printed it, without permission, and without renumeration.

Monica, the author of the work, only learned of the theft when one of her friends called to congratulate her on getting published in Cooks Source Magazine. “Published?,” she thought. “That’s news to me.”

So Monica ran out and sued Cooks Source Magazine, right? Not even close. She contacted the magazine and only asked that they print an apology for stealing her work, and asked that they donate $130, or $0.10 per word, to the Columbia School of Journalism. You’d think the magazine quickly jump at the chance to put this behind them, right? Again, not even close.

This is the reply Monica received from the editor of Cooks Source Magazine:

Yes Monica, I have been doing this for 3 decades, having been an editor at The Voice, Housitonic Home and Connecticut Woman Magazine. I do know about copyright laws. It was “my bad” indeed, and, as the magazine is put together in long sessions, tired eyes and minds somethings forget to do these things.

But honestly Monica, the web is considered “public domain” and you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!

An editor with 30 years of experience, eh? If that’s how she writes after 30 years, I’d love to see some of her early pieces. But I digress.

Any editor knows that web is most certainly not public domain. Copyright protection vests as soon as you write something down, whether you write it on a typewriter, on your palm, or yes, even on the internet. 17 USC 102 provides the applicable guidance:

(a) Copyright protection subsists, in accordance with this title, in original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression, now known or later developed, from which they can be perceived, reproduced, or otherwise communicated, either directly or with the aid of a machine or device. Works of authorship include the following categories:
(1) literary works;
(2) musical works, including any accompanying words;
(3) dramatic works, including any accompanying music;
(4) pantomimes and choreographic works;
(5) pictorial, graphic, and sculptural works;
(6) motion pictures and other audiovisual works;
(7) sound recordings; and
(8) architectural works.

(emphasis mine)

Our current system of copyright protection was enacted to protect authors from exactly this type of exploitation by publishers. I hope this ends well for Monica. Judging by the comments on the Cooks Source Magazine Facebook page, the whole internet is on her side.

Update:  Edward Champion has a great run down of the events so far.

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