Junkfood Science: Massive case of copyright violations uncovered — Plus a guide to copyright law for bloggers

February 05, 2008

Massive case of copyright violations uncovered — Plus a guide to copyright law for bloggers

Kudos to Lindsay at BABble who has uncovered one of the largest copyright violations ever reported. The website author has been “straight-out-and-out” stealing entire articles on fat issues — including the blog comments — and claiming them his own work, she reports. The sources come from bloggers, magazines and newspapers.

This breaking story is being discussed and updated on her website.

She is steadily uploading screen captures onto flickr photostream here. Any author who has written on issues of fat discrimination, fat health or public policy, or fat acceptance is encouraged to check out her screenshots and see if their work is among the stolen pieces.

Sadly, copyright violations happen all too often on the internet and in mainstream press. This might be a valuable time to share important laws every blogger needs to know. Hope this is of help to everyone.

Copyright 101

You know that huge writers’ strike going on in Los Angeles? Writers are fighting to protect their rights to their intellectual property from re-use without compensation. Hollywood understands that research, creativity and writing should not be taken/republished by others without the creator’s permission and compensation. A lot of bloggers, without professional publishing backgrounds, don’t realize that the internet is publishing, too, and the very same laws apply as in print publication. Publishing means any manner of making content publicly available.

An invaluable resource for writers, editors and publishers (including bloggers or self-publishers) is the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Since 1948, it’s been the country’s leading organization of independent nonfiction writers and is the leading experts on contract and copyright laws. Its Contracts Watch is invaluable, as are the many resources and the expert assistance it provides here.

According to Jack El-Hai, last year’s ASJA President, the medium in which an article is published has no bearing on whether the article receives copyright protection. Articles published online receive the same copyright protections as articles published in print or in all other media. The copyright laws allow authors, including bloggers, to control the use of their own work. Articles published online do not automatically enter the public domain.

The fair use provisions of copyright law (Title 17) are greatly misunderstood, he said, and are often intentionally misrepresented by copyright crooks. There are also limits on what qualifies as educational use. Colleges and universities, for example, must pay copyright royalties for materials used in photocopied course packs. For the Copyright Office's explanation of fair use, see here.

Any website that reuses copyrighted materials without permission is in violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, which allows an author to demand the ISP to shut off the webpages where the material has been reused and the author fails to remove it. For details, see the DMCA law. See “Example of DMCA Takedown Provision," here, to learn how to write a demand letter.

For the National Network of Libraries of Medicine, Linda Morgan Davis wrote “Copyright of Electronic Materials” which explains: “Electronic format materials are copyrighted in the same manner as print materials...Information on the Web cannot be reproduced and copied without permission from the owner of the work and in some cases copyrighted works may have been posted to the Web without authorization from the owner....The vast majority of the items on the Net are protected by copyright law.”

Copyright Website reviews public domain and states: “The vast majority of the items on the Net are protected by copyright law.” Works that are considered public domain include material for which the copyright has expired and government documents.

According to the article, “$18 Million Settlement to Freelance Writers” at the National Writers Union, “in its historic 2001 ruling in Tasini vs. New York Times, the Supreme Court ruled that the principles of copyright apply to online distribution of editorial content, and that articles cannot be distributed in cyberspace without permission of their creators.”

Viki Nygaard, a professional web developer, has written an excellent article on understanding U.S. Copyright Laws. Among some of the points that bloggers most misunderstand are: “Publication of works after March 1, 1989 no longer need to have a copyright notice attached to it in order for it to be protected under U.S. copyright laws.... It is highly recommended that you have a copyright notice along with terms of use on your Web site as a reminder to others and to give yourself additional protection in case of a copyright dispute... Unless you have permission from the Web site owner, framing (also called imbedding) is indeed considered to be illegal.”

In “Copyright in the New World of Electronic Publishing,” Attorney William S. Strong of Boston, reviewed some of the misconceptions about copyrights and fair use on the internet, and the criminal charges being taken against violators.

“12 Important U.S. Laws Every Blogger Needs to Know” covers just that, especially addressing the ethical issues.“NEVER claim that you are an objective, unbiased source if you are being paid to provide information,” Aviva writes. Just like medical researchers, credible web authors will reveal the sources of their funding. But a lot of blogs don’t, or even reveal their true names and credentials, as has been covered often here at JFS.

Never let it appear that work is your own if it isn’t, advises Aviva, and provide your sources — credit where credit is due. [This can actually involve plagiarism, rather than specifically a copyright violation. Plagiarism is when someone copies another person's words or ideas without attributing them to the true author. It's an ethical offense, but just as offensive.]

“Your work is protected under copyright as soon as it’s created. No record or registration with the U.S. Copyright office is required for this protection,” it writes. “Thankfully, copyright law protects original expression, providing you with a legal recourse if your content is stolen.” This article goes on to discuss a lot of other issues of interest to bloggers, such as handling comments, liability, spam, and shield laws. What is legal (ideas cannot be copyrighted, for instance), however, doesn’t mean it’s ethical or moral to take them. So think twice before you use ideas or research someone else has taken many hours or years to develop without giving your source -- think how you would feel.

From Writers Digest comes “A Writer's Guide to Fair Use in Copyright Law,” which can help writers learn the do’s and don’t’s to avoid infringing on another’s copyright and how much of another’s work is considered legal to quote. There are a lot of gray areas here and no writer will get it right every time but, hopefully, when writers try their best to respect the hard work of their fellow writers, everyone will be most apt to play fair.

Something, clearly, the website caught today by BaBble, didn’t.

© 2008 Sandy Szwarc

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