Recipe for Disaster

Mix together:

1 c. total disregard for copyright law
1 c. apparent ignorance of the definition of plagiarism and the entire SPJ Code of Ethics
3 lbs. social networking dogpile
½ c. arrogance

Congratulations, Cooks Source Magazine. If what we’re reading today is true, you have concocted the perfect recipe to remind us all of the disappointing slide in modern journalism ethics and the internet’s watchdog role that continues to be underestimated by, well, everyone.

A writer named Monica Gaudio wrote a historical piece on the evolution of the apple pie titled “A Tale of Two Tarts.” She was floored to discover that five years later, it was apparently lifted wholesale by Cooks Source and printed without payment or even notification. She found out when a friend called to congratulate her on the publication.

Gaudio contacted the magazine quietly, asking them for an apology and a $130 donation (about 10 cents a word) to the Columbia School of Journalism.

What she says she got back was so frankly astounding in its ignorance and arrogance that the internet has been exploding all day. Here’s my favorite part, as quoted by Gaudio:

“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!”

I think Cooks Source’s lawyer just quit, changed his name and ran away to Tahiti.

I don’t really have to go into the copyright issues, right? I mean, those of us that graduated from journalism school – or attended Day One – know that publication on the internet is absolutely not public domain.

Gaurdio’s story picked up real steam when it was posted by author and popular blogger Nick Mamatas. Authors who live or die by protecting their work – often with a whip and a chair – dogpiled with blogs and Facebook postings, and “Cooks Source” reached No. 6 on Twitter trends at the time of this writing.

It staggers the mind that anyone could reach the position of editor of a mid-size magazine without realizing that you can’t lift your material wholesale off the internet. Has it really become so commonplace that this basic tenet of Thou Shalt Not can be misunderstood, sublimated or ignored?

Many are calling it plagiarism, and without splitting legal hairs, I think it’s a dicey argument because they did credit her name. Gaudio has a better case on copyright infringement than plagiarism, I would think. But the attitude here – one that seems far too prevalent – is that what you find on the net belongs to you. And that simply isn’t so.

When I speak to journalism students about developing a personal code of ethics, I tell them there are certain parts that should be titled “The DUH Section.” And number one in the DUH Section is, you don’t take someone else’s words. We journalists know better than most the power of words, and how very difficult it is to craft a story that will register with readers. Stealing my words is no better than stealing my wallet – and since I’m a journalist, I don’t have much in the latter. Still, I’d rather you stole the wallet.

As the Cooks Source web site has been taken down and no one is speaking on their Facebook save the thousands shouting at them, it’s difficult to say how it will play out. Advertisers are bailing faster than you can boil a pot of tea, at least one of them with a public plea: “We have pulled our ads, please stop calling us.” Readers are finding other authors from whom the magazine may have swiped, including Paula Deen and Martha Stewart.

Such is the power of the internet. In the old world order, a kerfuffle like this would have been known only to the writer, the magazine, a handful of lawyers and perhaps a trade magazine. Thanks to social networking, there is a national discussion of plagiarism and writers’ rights taking place – and everyone knows the name of the magazine. There is such a thing as bad publicity.

Perhaps that is the real message, for those who have thumbed their noses at ethics codes and the tenets of good journalism for so long: the internet is watching. Follow the rules, or it’s going to hit you in the pocketbook. That’s probably a more effective punishment than anything the courts or the industry’s disapproval could ever manage.

Elizabeth Donald is a reporter with the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat, vice president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists and a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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  • Tom

    Way to go Bunky! Didn’t even have to go to journalism (or law) school to understand that basic no-no – I think we got it in Jr. High if not before.

  • Ola! Blogs,
    I just stumbled across this and, How important is the blog title really? Well, it’s very important. Many blogs fail because their owner didn’t put enough thought into the blog title. That obviously isn’t going to happen to you! Especially not when you’ve read the answers to the following five most frequently asked questions about blog titles.

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