Robert has been a business journalist for 23 years, both as a reporter and an editor. He joined Business Communications Group in 2005 and is our Business Writing Director.
If you’ve ever been tempted to save time and money by “borrowing” someone else’s material for your website or marketing materials, last week’s uproar over Cooks Source magazine should scare you straight.
I’ll give you the condensed version. For more details, follow the links.
It started with a Nov. 3 entry on Monica Gaudio’s blog. An article she had written five years ago suddenly turned up in a New England food magazine called Cooks Source. That was a surprise to Gaudio, who says had never given permission for the reprint, and had never heard of the magazine.
Gaudio wasn’t happy about it, but reasoned that even the best-run publications sometimes screw up. She was willing to settle the matter for chump change: A published apology in print and online, plus a $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism. That would amount to less than 8 cents a word for the 1,700-word original.
That idea didn’t fly with the Cooks Source editor. Gaudio didn’t name names, but others identified the editor as Judith Griggs, who does show up at the bottom of and old Boston Business Journal story as the person running the magazine.
Whoever sent the e-mail -- if the e-mail is real -- started out reasonably enough, admitting that the magazine had indeed taken the article without first getting authorization:
“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.” (Yes, you read it right, “minds somethings forget.”)
Then came the passages that unleashed the wrath of the Internet: “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!”
This was followed by a non-apology apology, the kind where someone says she’s sorry if you didn’t like what she did, but she’s not sorry for doing it.
And, as a final insult, the e-mail claimed the editor had “fixed” a few things in Gaudio’s original version. “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!”
Fifteen or 20 years ago, there wouldn’t have been much that Gaudio could do about it. In the Internet age, however, she could tell the world. It’s also an age when any post can turn viral in an instant. That’s especially true when there are thousands of writers out there who are especially sensitive to seeing one of their tribe ripped off.
Within 24 hours Griggs’ name had been revealed and the Cooks Source page on Facebook was filling up with vitriolic comments. Some enterprising bloggers had identified other instances where Cooks Source had run stories that originated elsewhere. One site features side-by-side comparisons of material.
You can’t control an Internet
And then the story started to get really strange.
- Griggs -- or someone claiming to be Griggs -- posted a response to Facebook: “Well, here I am with egg on my face! I did apologise to Monica via email, but aparently it wasnt enough for her. To all of you, thank you for your interest in Cooks Source and Again, to Monica, I am sorry — my bad!”
- This brought a fresh round of vitriol, ridicule and outright nastiness aimed at Griggs and Cooks Source. People started posting what they claimed were the personal address and phone number for Griggs.
- Some of the magazine’s advertisers -- or at least people claiming to be advertisers -- said Cooks Source no longer will get their business.
- A Twitter account opened, purportedly by Judith Griggs, and was quickly denounced as a fake.
- The original Cooks Source page on Facebook went dead, only to be replaced with a couple of others, at least one of which is widely regarded to be a fake.
- At least one blogger is now wondering if the whole episode might be an elaborate hoax. (If it is, somebody went to an incredible amount of trouble to create back issues of the magazine and post them on Facebook, complete with advertisements for real New England businesses.)
While the rest of the world is sorting out truth from speculation, you can take away several important lessons from the Cooks Source saga.
First: Don’t grab stuff that somebody else wrote and start using it for your own business. The Internet is not “public domain.” It’s easy for others to discover that your words first appeared somewhere else. And yes, people really will notice. So if you didn’t write it or get permission from the person who did write it, don’t use it. It takes only one angry blogger to focus the wrath of the Internet on you.
Second: If you’ve already been filching material, remove it. Take it off your website, throw out the printed versions, and build something new that’s your own. Be willing to pay for original content if you don’t have the time or talent to do it yourself. If you see something elsewhere that you’d like to use, ask for permission.
Third: If you get caught, fess up and make amends. Don’t play dumb. Don’t make excuses. Don’t be condescending.
Fourth: It’s not just about you. The angry Internet mob didn’t stop at vilifying Judith Griggs, but went on to attack businesses that were listed as advertisers. You can bet those companies aren’t happy about Cooks Source either.
Fifth: People won’t always bother to verify a juicy story. One person adds some speculation, and the next one takes the speculation as fact. Others start piling on. I’ve taken a cautious approach here, because I don’t want to convict anyone in print of something I can’t prove.
Sixth: While you aren’t allowed to take entire works without permission, you are allowed to quote bits of other people’s work. That’s called fair use.
By the way, the one thing Cooks Source is not guilty of is plagiarizing Gaudio. That’s when you try to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Cooks Source kept Gaudio’s byline, at least.
Now the story has been repeated by news outlets as far away as Bangkok and Sidney. The word Griggs has now been made into a verb meaning, “To use content on the web without permission, then request payment from original author for rewrites and editing.”
And to think it could have been nipped in the bud for $130.
--Other popular articles by Robert
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