Friday 19 November 2010


Jane Smith of How Publishing Really Works has designated today Copyright Day. This was precipitated by the recent CooksSource storm, which Jane talks about here. When I saw the statement issued by CooksSource, which they seemed to think was an apology, I decided I’d take it to pieces in a simple way and show why it is not enough. 

[Edited to add: if you visit Jane's blog for Copyright Day here, you'll find that at the end she's added stacks of links to other people who blogged on the topic. It's a fabulous resource.]

That was ten days ago. Since then, there have been developments. On November 16th, the CooksSource editor, Judith Griggs, issued another statement, here. It actually makes me feel sorry for her, and there is a real apology in there. However, there's a tell-tale sentence which shows a continued lack of understanding of copyright. In her explanation of how she came to use the piece written by Monica Gaudio without permission, Ms Griggs says: "Bleary-eyed I didnt notice it was copy written and reordered some of it. I did keep the author’s name on it rather than outright “stealing” it, and it was my intention to contact the author, but I simply forgot, between proofreading, deliveries, exhaustion." I do accept that mistakes can be made, especially when one is doing too much, but the thing is that even with the author's name it in, this was still as much "stealing" as if the name wasn't there. It's still not right. And this thing about not noticing that it was "copy written" .... There is nothing to notice. We should assume that if we didn't write it, we can't copy it, unless we are quoting a small section under the terms of fair use.

Then, yesterday, November 18th, I heard that CooksSource announced that it is closing down, blaming the author who rightly complained that her copyright had been infringed and her work used without permission, so I guess I'm right that they have not understood the issue.

However, I was horrified, as Jane and other decent people were, by the spewing of hatred against Ms Griggs, the CooksSource editor. I despise such ugly and threatening reactions: they are uncivilised, disgusting and morally wrong in every way. They do nothing to aid the cause of copyright, intellectual property right or civilisation. 

So, I have decided not to rip to shreds Ms Griggs' statement. It would be too easy and probably someone else will do it anyway. Actually, I did, but I deleted the whole thing. I would rather someone read this to learn about copyright than to read about an editor's embarrassing misunderstanding of it.

The laws of copyright are not simple, but they have a simple core: to protect the creator’s right to earn, as laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (Article 27.2) “Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.”

The laws do not seek to stop people referring to the work of others to inform their own work or for comment; but they do seek to stop people unfairly profiting from the original work of a creator by using it instead of their own. So, you are allowed to quote from a piece in order to inform or explain your own work, as long as you properly credit the writer and the source of the quote. This is called Fair Use or Fair Dealing,  which allows people to quote a small amount of material without permission. Otherwise, no one would ever be allowed to quote anything from an in-copyright work. This bit of the law is hazy because no one can define the size of quote that it’s acceptable to use. If in doubt, ask permission.

It's not just editors who need to know this: it's authors, too. We may find ourselves contravening copyright if we quote too much without permission or if we fail to credit the source properly. So, let me put it as simply as I can:

  • If you want to reproduce someone’s work, you must ask permission if the work is within copyright*. Ask the author, who will tell you if you need to ask the publisher. (In the UK, copyight in written work lasts for 70 years after the author's death, NOT 70 years after the work was created. If the author died within the last 70 years, contact the Society of Authors, who will help you work out who holds the rights.)
  • If you want to quote snippets from someone’s work to illustrate a point you are making, you should be allowed to do so without asking, under the terms of Fair Use / Dealing, as long as you quote with 100% accuracy, credit the author’s name and the source of the quote, and put it properly in context so that you do not demean the work. (This ruling is in place to allow reviewers, essayists, commentators etc to be able to comment with references.) If you're worried that you may be quoting too much, ask. Song lyrics are copyrighted, by the way, and you cannot (without permission) use even a small phrase from a song lyric if it's obviously a reference to it. For example, you could not use phrases from Beatles songs as your chapter headings. But, as you'll see here, song titles are not covered.
  • If you want to copy something you find on the internet, the same rules apply, but you might also find something called a Creative Commons Licence. (See the bottom right hand corner of this blog.) This will tell you what the author has allowed you to use and in what circumstances.
I recommend that anyone wishing to know enough about copyright should read about the Berne Convention, to which virtually every country in the world (including the US) is a signatory. Then look for the slight differences that your own country operates – for example concerning the number of years after the writer’s death that copyright applies. There are plenty of places where you can find more detail about copyright, but get your information from a trusted source, such as the website of a firm of lawyers.

In short, if you want to use someone's work, you must ask. They may very well just say Yes and not ask for money, depending on the circumstances, but you still are required to ask. Remember that old school-yard adage: borrowing without asking is theft.

Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the slogan that I used when I was Chair of the Society of Authors in Scotland: Authors in Control.

Because I think they should be.


Unknown said...

Great post. Reasoned and compassionate. Injustice stirs and unreasonable actions and statements make people react unreasonably. The shift in the dynamic of power was awesome to behold: a literary mob.

Nicola Morgan said...

Thank you, Elaine. I wondered if I was being a bit soft on Ms Griggs - actually, her apparent continued ignorance shocks me, but I feel that enough has been said against her, and I often DO feel sorry for people who do wrong, because guilt and the knowledge you did wrong is a horrible thing. I'd always rather be the victim than the wrongdoer! But anyway, I hope people learn good things from all this shenanigans and focus on doing the right thing from now on - and bringing up our children to respect copyright and people, too.

Sarah Duncan said...

Thanks for posting this Nicola; the more people understand what copyright is, the more chance we have of protecting it.

catdownunder said...

Thankyou Nicola - because, for me, all sensible and measured comment concerning copyright is welcome. I have a very personal interest in the topic.
Is it all right to say that I wrote my own blog post on the topic? (Just click on my name.)
If that is not all right I apologise and please delete this comment. (I will not be offended.)

Dan Holloway said...

reading this made me realise just how many archives and tags you have - bottom right hand corner taes some finding!

Every author should read at least one guide to copyright law - most professions will have an induction/apprenticeship that include a basic guide to the law relating to it - I wonder why authors would feel that doesn't apply to them - knowing your onions on what not to pilfer is one part of acting professionally - so much attention is paid to how to address query letters professionally this equally important part often gets missed.

Of course there are times when knowledge of the law isn't enough. Fair use can frustrate the hell out of you. My contribution to copyright blogging day is on writing about popular culture when it's not clear how many if any song lyrics you can quote and a band's managers never get back to your permission requests.

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat - very very interesting. Of course it's right for you to mention it here. It's very educational. I'll leave a comment later but am rushing now.

And Dan, thanks - have left a comment on yours.

Sarah - absolutely.

Agnieszkas Shoes said...

Thak you, nicola - I think your comment may have got eaten by blogger

Jane Smith said...

Nicola--thanks for this. It's a fabulous guide to copyright, and I bet a lot of writers are going to find it extremely useful. I'll add a link to it to my blog post now.

And yes, I too was tempted to do a full analysis of the Cooks Source statements but it was just too easy: there is too much material there to take issue with. Better we try to be positive and helpful, I think.

JO said...

many thanks for this - such a sensible, accessible approach to the whole topic.

Bookshop Becky said...

Great post - I think the Cooks Source statement was weak, to put it mildly, but she's going to suffer the consquences for a long time to come, so best at this point to be forward-looking.

Nadia Damon said...

Hi Nicola,
Having been on the receiving end of this (without a byline, it has to be said) I was ready to come out all guns blazing this morning, but your post really made me stop and think.
While Ms Griggs's attitude continues to rile me, I think you've got it right. Hopefully, it will encourage other people to learn the rules and consider things from an author's perspective.
With that in mind, I've also included a link to your blog entry in my Copyright Day post. Hope that's okay. ;o)

Quillers said...

A very reasoned and sensitive response to the whole discussion, Nicola. As well as giving solid information about copyright.

Daniel Blythe said...

For some reason I am always being asked by students about song lyrics. Some new writers seem unable to have their characters express an emotion without remembering how the same feelings were put into words by Coldplay. I always get the idea they have been watching too much American TV like "Gray's Anatomy" (where nobody can say goodbye to anybody, learn to accept their gay friend or tell their Dad they lurve them without a soft college-guitar-rock ballad playing in the background). Very useful to have that song copyright page to direct them to - thanks for that!

It would be impossible to police the use of titles, wouldn't it? But them again, it must be hard to police the use of certain phrases. If I had a chapter called "We Could Be Heroes", who's to say it's definitely lifted from the Bowie song? Or if I had one called "I Didn't Mean It", you'd have a hard job proving it's intentionally quoted from Take That's "Back For Good"...

Nicola Morgan said...

Cat - sorry: I tried to post a comment but I had problems (my computer and real tiredness. If you like, you can copy this comment there: I just want to show support but am too tired!) p

Nicola Morgan said...

All - thanks for your comments. Sorry have come to end of energy levels and can't reply to each :(

catdownunder said...

Defurrnitely your bedtime. Purrhaps Spike will give you a soothing, claws retracted, massage! :-)

batgrl said...

While I think Griggs is completely unapologetic and still blames the author for what happened instead of admitting that not only her own actions were at fault - it was mainly her method of communicating that created the mess. If she'd apologized - even insincerely - and left out all the "you should pay me" nonsense the mob would never have been so stirred up by this. It makes me think of the "inciting a riot" type of situations we read about in media law. This however is not the first time this has happened with someone especially when the forces of 4chan have been angered. (Many stories have been written about this in the past, just more read by the tech industry folk I guess.)

Having said that there is one thing that no one seems to be warning people about, especially writers. If you have your full name online and have been putting information out on your real address, photos with your real name attacked on Facebook or Flickr, etc. - then you are setting yourself up for something like this especially if you are rude/undiplomatic to your readers, or are purposely trying to provoke an audience. If you read the discussion sections on the taken-over Facebook page you'll see that they quickly found Grigg's real life address and phone number early on. Google shows you what it looks like, what her neighbors are, etc. etc.

Not saying that everyone should be paranoid, but if you're an author with a public presence online, you might want to look into using a pen name, or simply be sure your Facebook privacy is set high and then have a separate public page with less info. For websites there are ways to have different info than your home address on the Who Is page. This may seem a bit tech heavy - but there's a safety factor involved that writers previously didn't have to worry about. But the web has really turned us all into public figures of a sort - or at least given the ability to all readers to find out personal information.