Copyright campaigners get creative in the kitchen

It’s been a busy time for copyright shenanigans – here are just some of the highlights from the last few days:

UK Prime Minister David Cameron announced a review of the country’s copyright laws to make them more “Google-friendly”, saying the laws could be relaxed to allow greater use of copyright material without the owner’s permission. Cynics please note: there is absolutely no connection between this initiative and the fact that Rachel Whetstone, Google Vice-President, is married to Steve Hilton, Director of Strategy at 10 Downing Street.

In the US State of Texas a photographer is suing both the Departments of Public Safety and Criminal Justice for copyright infringement after discovering that convicted criminals under the state’s supervision had produced 4.5 million vehicle inspection stickers ripped off from one of his photographs. David K. Langford was apparently forced to sue state authorities when they failed to respond to his attempts to negotiate a deal.

As it prepared for listing on the London stock exchange on Friday Russia’s largest internet group Mail.ru admitted it faced multiple law suits over allegations that its websites rely on pirated content to attract much of their audiences. Mail.ru’s excuse? “We didn’t plan on using pirated content to get some sort of an advantage over our competitors. It’s just the nature of web 2.0.”

Internet media network Techcrunch casually admitted that they steal photographs as a matter of routine. But that’s ok they reassured readers: when the owners ask them to remove the stolen work they always comply.

And which of these stories launched a copyright firestorm the like of which is rarely seen? Answer: none of the above. Instead the biggest copyright row for a long time involved a student blogger, a previously unknown magazine and a couple of medieval tarts.

In 2005 Monica Gaudio published a story on apple pie recipes on a medieval cookery website; a couple of weeks ago she discovered that the article had been reproduced by Cooks Source, a small New England cookery magazine. Gaudio approached the editor, one Judith Griggs, and asked how the magazine had acquired her material. After a little email to and fro Griggs asked Gaudio what she wanted; Gaudio asked for a printed apology and $130 contribution to the Columbia School of Journalism.

Instead she got a lecture:

“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. 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. 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. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me!”

Within hours of Gaudio publishing Griggs’ hectoring on her blog at 11.14pm on Wednesday the story began to trend on Twitter. By Thursday evening the Cooks Source Facebook page was under siege from thousands of new “friends”, all eager to tell Griggs exactly what they thought of her. Friday saw the story all over the mainstream media; in just 36 hours Cooks Source had gone from obscure local publication to CNN fodder. And by Saturday evening Cooks Source had earned the ultimate Internet accolade: a Downfall parody.

Along the way Griggs ditched the Cooks Source Facebook page as it was overrun, setting up an alternative page that was in turn abandoned for a third, that was soon dumped for a fourth, all as the mob continued in hot pursuit. And irate mobs being what they are, some members rummaged through the contents of the various Facebook pages and found – surprise – lots more evidence of plagiarism. Lawyers from various serious organisations – like the Food Network and Disney – are apparently now taking an interest in Griggs’ publishing activities.

Amid all the brouhaha one question remained unanswered: of all the available candidates for a copyright lynching, how come Griggs drew the short straw? Interviewed in Time NewsFeed Gaudio had her own theory – the Internet is mad as hell, and it’s not going to take it anymore:

“Think of it like the Internet has rules, just like anything else in your life…. The Internet says we have to abide by these rules or else there’s mass hysteria, and things don’t work. What this woman did was she broke the rules. She broke the rules of the Internet basically, and the Internet got pissed off.”

Really? If so the Internet’s been sleeping on the job for quite some time. While Grigg’s attitude begged a mauling, and she was ludicrously wrong in her public domain defence, she was right about one thing: this kind of theft happens a lot, clearly more than the Internet is aware of.

Mainstream publications looting Twitter and Flickr? The Internet barely notices. Porn baron rips off schoolgirl? The Internet just shrugs. News agency steals photos then tries to sue photographer? The Internet yawns. Yes, all these incidents have caused some comment, but the controversies have largely remained confined to those directly affected or people who take an active interest in such things: certainly none has achieved the viral status of the Cooks Source scandal.

It would be wonderful to think that Gaudio is right, that the Internet’s had enough of this, and that every time a publisher of any size rips off somebody’s work an angry mob will descend, pitchforks ready to skewer whatever corporate image is appropriate. Sadly that’s just not going to happen.

The reality is that the Internet loves a riot, and any old riot will do: last week Cooks Resource Roast just happened to be the best show in town. But much as the mob enjoyed the feast, the truth is that they were feeding on scraps; when it comes to copyright infringement the main course is elsewhere. Hey there Internet: ever heard of a thing called Google?

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