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It’s hard to make a living writing online. In general, those who write for the web are looked down on by their ‘in-print’ counterparts. Despite the fact that we often speak to larger and more relevant audiences, there’s still an attitude that web copy is somehow illegitimate, less professional.

Just because someone is writing for a newspaper, they aren’t automatically any more talented or influential than a blogger. The lines are blurred; many bloggers being talented journalists and vice versa.

Indeed, the only real difference is the matter of accessibility, and it's this factor which has led newspapers to duck behind paywalls, offer subscription-based apps and ‘unique content’ add-ons as the old media struggle to monetise their sites and avoid devaluing their content.

The assumption seems to be that online, content may be king, but it’s still cheap.

In fact, one recent incident shows that some people consider it so cheap; it isn’t worth paying for at all.

There’s still a flurry unravelling over on Twitter and Facebook about this, but in case you haven’t yet read into it the latest social media PR disaster comes courtesy of Cooks Source Magazine, a fairly small publication based in New England which offers readers information on sustainable food growth and cookery.

A couple of years ago, LiveJournal user Monica Gaudio posted a short article on the history of the apple pie. Conclusion: It isn’t quite as all-American as you might think.

Fairly innocuous stuff, until it recently resurfaced in Cook’s Source magazine.

According to Monica , she only became aware of this when a friend asked her how she had managed to be published. Monica acted correctly, contacting the magazine under the assumption that a mix-up had occurred. The response showed an astonishing lack of knowledge about digital copyright, content value, and of course, the ever-looming spectre of social media fail and internet wrath.

Apparently, the magazine had simply lifted the article directly from Monica’s site, publishing it in their print magazine, on their website and on the Cooks Source Facebook page. 

A few emails in and the editor finally asked what Monica wanted.

Her list of demands was hardly excessive: A printed apology, and a donation of $130 to the Columbia school of Journalism, and she’d ignore the entire incident. Instead, the editor of Cook’s Source responded with a remarkable display of ignorance and condescension:

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!

I’m unable to fathom where the notion that all web content is public domain came from for starters. If this is true, then it should be perfectly fine for me to reprint the entire contents of The Times on my blog each day.

It’s an absolutely ridiculous and indefensible response. Yes, lifting does occur, but that in no way makes it right.  If a very small newsletter or ‘Zine were to quote extensively from an online source that’s one thing, but Cooks Source is a respected and supposedly professional publication, who in this instance have resorted to theft and then taken the attitude that because they did an edit, the content is now theirs.

Of course, the publication’s various sites are now buried in a storm of comments from incensed users, and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to recover quickly from such a massive blow to their credibility.

This is a shame for many reasons.

In theory, the magazine offers valuable content to a community of environmentally and nutritionally concerned readers. A good thing. But their editor’s astonishing condescension towards web copywriters and online copyright law is appalling, and as the story continues to make waves on Twitter, Facebook and other social sites, nothing less than a full apology, compensation and quite possibly some staff changes is likely to satiate the baying hordes of Reddit.

Publishers and broadcasters need to realise that those who write exclusively for the web, be it professionally or simply because they want to, are in no way less deserving of respect.

Simply because you've penned a few lines for Nuts magazine (apologies to any Nuts employees by the way), you aren't more or less deserving of common courtesy and a fair rate of pay than a casual blogger.

With print circulation falling in many areas, blogs and websites are increasingly the primary source of information for a huge number of people, so surely it's time publishers and broadcasters realised that staples aren't enough to hold an ivory tower together any more?

Matt Owen

Published 5 November, 2010 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

203 more posts from this author

Comments (3)


aj o'rourke

Can you say Willful Copyright Infringement !

almost 6 years ago

Chris Turberville-Tully

Chris Turberville-Tully, Managing Director at Inspiration Inc

Great post Matt,

The editor needs to eat humble pie and her latest response hardly constituted that from what I'm reading above.

The issue as always, for me, comes down to the value of good writing. On or Off line, yes they are different skills but because we were all taught how to write at school, many, many people believe that writing is virtually worthless.

I'm just waiting for schools to start teaching code as a mandatory subject :-)

almost 6 years ago



i hate copyright guys they get on my nerve

almost 6 years ago

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