Writing has brought innumerable changes to my life. In addition to the need for solving quite concrete and practical problems, like finding enough time in a day to write, I’ve been forced to confront issues which, quite frankly, didn’t concern me even a year ago.
One of those issues is content theft, known more formally as copyright infringement. Across the web, musicians, photographers, writers and artists of every sort have been forced into a kind of guerilla warfare with folks determined to take and use what is not theirs. Some people do it casually and without thought, not intending to offend. But now and then I find comments which indicate other attitudes underlying the actions. “If they put it on the web, it’s fair game”, commented one blogger. “I figure they’ll never find out,” said another. And recently, I read that “it doesn’t make any difference” who authored a particular piece of work. Having just written and posted what is my favorite, and perhaps best poem, Watching Comet Lulin, I’m afraid I took that rather personally.
To say it makes no difference who wrote something is to say that, when someone comes along and steals my work, I should smile and say, “Well, it’s my vision. I struggled to put it into words, and took the time to copyright it and claim ownership of it, but that’s ok. If you want to put your name on it and pass it off as yours, I’ll just sit back and let you do it”.
As you might assume, that isn’t going to happen. Intellectual property is intellectual property, and copyright law is binding, and the entire reason for things like the Digital Millenium Copyright Act is to protect artists and writers who deserve the rights to their work.
I’ve had my work stolen, and it’s not a good experience. The first time it happened, I was stunned, barely able to breathe when I saw someone else’s name on my essay. Now, about two dozen thefts down the road, it isn’t any easier. The difference is that now I know what to do, and I do it.
I’ve spent a good bit of time chasing down characters from Oslo to Rome to Kiev who have lifted my material off the web and used it as fodder for making money, and you can bet that the servers who host them and their advertisers cooperate in hunting them down. Here are two examples from one site, where the geniuses involved put two names on the same post, Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts.
There are few things in life I’m sure of, but I’m quite certain I am neither “Greg Wilson” nor “Allen”. In this particular case, getting the offending material off the web was relatively easy. Performing a WHOIS search, I discovered the site was hosted by freehostia.com. They provide an “abuse” link at their site where the procedures for reporting a variety of offenses is clearly outlined.
I sent them an email that contained the offending URLs and proof of my ownership - a link to my original post and my information from My Free Copyright, an electonic “fingerprinting” service that identifies and archives each of my new posts within hours of it going up on the web. The My Free Copyright information for Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts looks like this (with identifying information removed, of course):
Copyright :: All Rights Reserved
Registered :: Sun Feb 15 03:35:50 UTC 2009
Title :: Derelict Boats, Derelict Hearts
Description :: As Galveston dons the purple, green and gold of Mardi Gras and South Padre Island waits for the youthful, languorous stretch of Spring Break, Port O’Connor cleans its rods, repairs its reels and waits for the spring flounder run to begin. Port
Category :: Blog
Fingerprint :: xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx
MCN :: xxxxx-xxxxx-xxxxxx
Once you locate the offender’s host and provide evidence of your rightful ownership, those sites come down, and in my experience, tbey come down fast. Neither web hosts nor advertisers seem eager to be held liable in copyright infringement cases. If you’re surfing the web and find a link taking you to a page that says “This site not available. If you are the owner, contract the site administrator”, it may be that someone didn’t pay their bill or posted forbidden content. However, it’s just as likely they were caught engaging in copyright infringement.
Freehostia responded to my complaint within a day. When “Allen” or “Greg Wilson” showed up at their site, this is what they found.
The Terms of Service at WordPress are quite clear: By making Content available, you represent and warrant that the downloading, copying and use of the Content will not infringe the proprietary rights, including but not limited to the copyright, patent, trademark or trade secret rights, of any third party;
At Weather Underground, where I maintain a second blog, there is the same caveat in the TOS: (The user will not) Upload, post, email, transmit, link to or otherwise make available any information on the Site that infringes any intellectual property rights or other proprietary rights of others.
WordPress itself is filled with links to helpful hints for discovering and dealing with content theft. Experienced bloggers such as timethief and Lorelle maintain sites that provide easy access to information, and such groups as the Electronic Frontier Foundation provide a roadmap for exploring legal issues.
In the end, on the world-wide web as in the world, it does make a difference “who wrote it”. It especially makes a difference to artists of every sort who work for hours (days, weeks, years) to craft something meant to stir people’s spirits and souls. An artist should have the right to share his or her creation without fearing that someone else will claim it as their own.
The all-too-common attitude that whatever is posted on the web is free for the taking is simply wrong. Unless the artist makes clear, through a Creative Commons license or other means, that the work can be shared in particular ways, all rights remain with the photographer, writer, musician or artist. All of us need to respect that and be responsible in our use of images, photographs, graphics and text.
It’s the ethical thing to do.