Why sue when you can use social media?

Internet angry! Crush puny magazine!

Yesterday we got a very interesting lesson about law enforcement online. Imagine that you discover your rights are being violated in some way, and you are almost certain that you are on the right. Traditionally you had three options: do nothing, contact the offender to negotiate, or file a lawsuit. If you were lucky, well known and/or powerful, you may also have been able to contact the press. Nowadays there is another option, to unleash the Internet’s wrath via social media.

By now you may have already heard the story of Monica Gaudio and Judith Griggs, but if you have not, hang on to your seats. In 2005 Monica Gaudio wrote an article for a medieval history cookery website entitled “A Tale of Two Tarts“. Judith Griggs runs a New England cookery magazine with accompanying website called Cooks Source. By mere coincidence, a friend of Ms Gaudio found her article published in Cooks Source and contacted her to congratulate her for getting published. Monica was baffled as she had not given permission to have her article published anywhere, so she searched and found that her old post was indeed being used by Cooks Source. She emailed the magazine asking for an apology on their Facebook page and a $130 USD donation to the Columbia School of Journalism. She received the following reply from Judith Griggs:

“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!”

Monica was rightly outraged, and posted the story to her LiveJournal page. There is probably something about the tone in Griggs’ response that makes it such a compelling read. What I felt when I read it is perhaps the same many other people felt; here we have a clear injustice being committed, not only that, the person committing it did not really apologise, on the contrary, uttered falsehoods in an arrogant manner, therefore perpetuating the injustice. Cooks Source should not be allowed to get away with this! Needless to say, the story went viral on Twitter with the hashtag #crookssource (thanks to loveandgarbage for linking the LJ story), and then Facebook, blogs, and finally, the mainstream media. The Cook Source Facebook page is one of the most interesting examples of mass outrage that I have seen in a while.

Firstly, what is the law in this case? Well, obviously Ms. Griggs is wrong in every point of her legal assessment. Thanks to the Berne Convention, all original works have copyright as soon as they are created, posting something online does not place it in the “public domain”, and her editing and “improving” the original does not change the fact that there was infringement committed. If she had wanted, Ms Gaudio could have used the large arsenal of copyright infringement tools available to American authors, including DMCA notice and take-down. But why bother with expensive lawyers when you have an Internet mob on your side? The mob posted the email for Cooks Source, and even their telephone number to ensure that they would get an earful. Then, the FB page became a source of amusement, honest wit, mindless abuse, and general lulz. Furthermore, Monica Gaudio unintentionally unleashed the anonymous crowdsourcing forces of the Internet onto one specific subject. Quickly, the mob found several other plagiarised articles, a list of Cooks Source advertisers, a list of places where the magazine is distributed… you get the picture. The mob was not happy with letting their displeasure known. They were out to destroy the magazine and erase it from the face of the Earth.

Here is where I have become worried. I despise the sight of mindless angry mobs, even if I agree with their grievances. The level of abuse and animosity directed at Judith Griggs is disproportionate to the offence; I agree with Phil Bradley that some of the behaviour witnessed is akin to bullying. Mind you, many of the people in the mob are the same people who happily use file-sharing every single day. I guess that the copyright of one blogger has a more romantic connotation than the copyright of faceless corporations.

Personally, I hope that we will see an amicable resolution to the keruffle. Were I to advice Ms Griggs, I would say that she must issue a complete apology, pay the $130 dollars, and hope that nothing else happens.

By the way, I propose a new measure for Twitter virality. Once something has been tweeted by Neil Gaiman, we can officially state that a story has gone viral. Agreed? The gaiman could also become a measure of viral spread: “that story was massive, it was at least 3 gaimans”.

ETA: There is a Google Doc with all of the plagiarised articles in Cooks Source. Remind me never to become enemies with the Internet!

ETA2: Cooks Source is no more. The Internet has taken its toll.

15 comments to Why sue when you can use social media?

  • Hugh Mannity

    Here is where I have become worried. I despise the sight of mindless angry mobs, even if I agree with their grievances. The level of abuse and animosity directed at Judith Griggs is disproportionate to the offence

    I posted on my Dreamwidth blog about my experiences with an internet dogpile from the pre-Google and FB days. The level of damage that was done, the vindictive postings, threats, insults, etc., were absolutely astonishing and quite frightening. Nothing's changed since then except the size of the angry mob.

  • anny2

    Why didn't Gaudio notify the ISP of copyright infringement? She could have had the offending article taken down without starting a witchhunt.

  • rojer

    I have been keeping an eye on this since yesterday. According to an interview of Monica by Time, she said she was hoping for a little friendly advice. She had no idea it would hit reddit and then go viral. Her stance started more as, 'do I have standing?' rather than, 'let's flame this rag'.

    http://newsfeed.time.com/2010/11/05/exclusive-coo

  • John Wilson

    The missing thing here is that Ms Griggs returned to the FB page and, for all practical purposes, tossed gasoline on the fire.

    The reality here is that Ms Griggs replied to Ms Gaudio with an email that was, in all legal terms, wildly incorrect and insulting to top it off. The path offered to Ms Griggs to settle was reasonable, perhaps too reasonable, and Ms Griggs blew it off.

    Even when she got caught she couldn't resist, early in the tromp on, taking another shot in her arrogant way that not only added fuel to the fire it exploded it.

    As for file sharing a great deal of it is perfectly legal so the shot in this article is uncalled for as is a mob response to it. Think Linux and masses of other open source software, all under copyright by the way.

    Ms Griggs has no one but herself to blame for what has been happening on Facebook.

    @ anny2 there is a perception out there that tools such as the DCMA and take down notices are for big business with office towers full of lawyers such as the MPAA and RIAA and not for "the little guy" so there is some reluctance to take that route. And this started with a reasonable offer of a settlement which Ms Griggs arrogantly rejected. I should ad that the article in question also appeared in print. The magazine is hosted by a small hosting company which may very well have no idea how to handle a DCMA takedown notice and what happens when such a notice is issued and contested.

    To Hugh, I'm sorry that happened to you but as you say it's nothing new. In the old days even a favourable reference on Slashdot would take down sites which gave birth to the words Slashdotted and slashdotting. (This kerfuffle was reported on Slashdot as well, by the way.)

    It's not that mob justice is ever right as much as that, in this case, Ms Griggs has added fuel to an already burning fire instead of trying to put it out either by settling or just shutting up about it for a few days and letting it pass. Both, IMHO, would have been far better than her behavior on line to date.

    • Hi John,

      There is enough scope to doubt that the second message supposed to be coming from Judith Griggs is really coming from her. There are already one fake Twitter account and several fake pages on Facebook pertaining to be her. I disagree that she has nobody to blame for this but herself. While I was as angry as anyone else initially, I despise mobs.

      I should have indicated that I was referring to file-sharing of infringing content, which is still rampant online. I invite you to check my track record on the copyfight wars (the ACTA and the Creative Commons tags should give you an idea of where I stand on the subject), and BTW, check my Publications page with regards to open source software.

  • Jonathon

    While these are the same people that fileshare, they're not upset about the copying. It's more about the attitude the person took towards the person they copied from. They took the recipe, represented it as something they had obtained rightfully(and yes they gave her credit), and then were pricks when they got caught. Spend some time lurking on the internet and find a ripper, warez, or other cracker group, and see what happens when someone renames a file to remove their particularly branding of something they cracked/ripped (be it a movie, a program, etc…) It's not about legal/illegal, it's about perceived right and wrong, or reputation.

    As far as internet justice goes, I'm pretty sure 4chan hasn't gotten involved yet (and it doesn't seem like their particular type of cause to get involved with), so all in all this isn't that bad.

    • Excellent point about the copying Jonathon. I still found it a bit ironic that the Reddit crowd was attacking a copyright infringer :)

      • John Wilson

        @Andres

        Actually the CC tags and ACTA stuff do show where your sympathies are and I didn't see them till I clicked send.

        There now seem to be some growth in Ms Griggs presence, fake, on Twitter and on FB. The fakes are being identified very quickly now so the trolls have joined in and they're being identified quickly too.

        There's some order appearing among the "mob" though. Which, in some threads is making it more ordered and purposeful if not altogether enlightening. A good sign is that the more orderly "mob" is the one that has the most traction and the other threads are dying out almost as soon as they appear.

        I'm still not altogether sure about the response attributed to Ms Griggs that set off today's rounds. It certainly fits her attitude as expressed in the email and the sort of thing I've come to expect from some who get caught with their fingers in the cookie jar. But it's best to reserve judgment on that for the time being, I agree.

        Mainstream media has taken notice, too. It doesn't mean that much as friday afternoon is considered slow time in the media so if they can find something interesting they'll pick it up particularly if it seems to have the legs to carry on into Saturday.

  • M

    The DMCA safe harbor, and thus notice-and-takedown, only apply to material stored at the direction of a user.

    Here, Griggs runs the sites and committed the infringement herself. No DMCA protection.

  • stringman

    "Mind you, many of the people in the mob are the same people who happily use file-sharing every single day. I guess that the copyright of one blogger has a more romantic connotation than the copyright of faceless corporations."

    That seems a bit uninformed, to put it politely.

    Come to techdirt and we'll educate you.

  • anny2

    Sorry to see Gaiman join the howling mob. Disillusioned, too.

  • Legal injustices of all kinds happen on the internet to individuals and businesses alike. It is one thing to harness the power of social media, but the injustices that occur by the second will only be able to be effectively harnessed if the story goes viral or has some SEO guru promote it.

  • This sort of story is becoming increasingly common, though of course not at the scope or virulence of the story you describe above. I'm interested in the 'angry mob' mentality, because I like to think about what causes otherwise perfectly nice people to be so mean. There's a historicity to this, running back through the decades and centuries during which the Judith Griggses of the world really could send the Monica Gaudios of the world dismissive missives that smack of entitlement without any fear of repercussion. Things have changed. (See: Clint McCance, Kwame Kilpatrick.)

    I think the glee with which people join up with angry mobs is more about the history of powerlessness in our culture than it is about something innately human. Insofar as these mobs lead to futher breakdowns of power imbalances, they add to an important trajectory. Insofar as they simply enable people to be mean to each other, they draw us back from the very trajectory social media platforms have helped to set us on.

Leave a Reply