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.