where the writers are
Authors' Copyright, Digital Plagiarism, and Web 2.0
A digital artifact for future archeologists to consider

For writers, the apocryphal Chinese curse "May you live in interesting times" has come true. The Web and the many social networking groups it has spawned make it remarkably easy to share samples of our work, market it, connect with fans, and sometimes agents or publishers. But the less-pleasant edge of this sword cuts into copyright and intellectual property.  The fluidity and speed of connection and copying that digital techonology faciltates means that others can take our work and do  anything with it: republish it without credit to us, or with their own "authorship" attached; sell it in packages of material that we never hear of; mix and match parts of it into a new whole with their own and others' contributions. 

In a later blog, I'll  look in a little more detail at the postiive and negative implications for authors of of what some are calling Web 2.0: no longer the passive sites of the first-generation Web, where one simply accesses or downloads information archived by others, but the more interactive and collaborative everyone's-a-creator Web we are now living with.

Let's consider, by contrast, how things were in the pre-Web, print days.  Unless you were fortunate enough to be a Very Famous Author, people would hear about your work in only a few ways that depended on luck and on the sales/marketing abilities of your publisher.  Perhaps they'd read a review that intrigued them in some newspaper or literary magazine, run across your work in a bookstore or library, or come to a reading you were giving.  They might learn of your genius through an anthology or contest.  But beyond these means, the odds were that Joe or Jill Blow from Somewhere Else would never hear of you or your excellent writing.  Now, potential consumers can encounter your work on social networking sites like Red Room, My Space, or many others,  on your own website or one sponsored by a publisher or fan, simply by searching for keywords that relate to your work. Also not to be ignored is the ease with which we can find, share work , and even collaborate with like-minded writers around the globe we would otherwise never have known. After all, would you have heard of me without Red Room?

Web promotional/communication vehicles are low or no-cost, and their quality is limited only by imagination and how much  work and technical savvy goes into them. Often, if you write an article, story or poem and place it with a little magazine, you  have, at best, a few hundred readers over a period of a few months.  If that periodical puts your work on its website or e-zine, you have the potential for thousands of readers for as long as the issue is available on-line. Most periodicals  -- not all -- have bowed to pressure from authors' organizations and now pay something for the electronic rights they are using (assuming they pay anything for the traditional print rights in the first place).

 A recent development that illustrates just how much and how fast the game is changing concerns the class-action suit recently pursued against Google.  This omnipresent search-engine is on the route to becoming not just a finder but a provider of information.  Are you aware that over the past few years Google has been scanning just about every book available in English (out-of-print ones as well as current titles) into a vast database which can be searched and downloaded from by users?  Google has agreed to pay a token sum (about $90/title) for the rights to those who register with it and list their published titles by next January.  In Canada, authors get  payments from Access Canada which compensates for both authorized and impromptu copying,  photocopying and electronic, of their work.

Unfortunately, as the sword turns, we also feel the wounds from the cutting edge of technology.  Others take our work, put it onto websites or into print without payment or permission, sometimes attaching their own name to it. The ease with which the Web cuts across international boundaries can make it difficult to pursue (or sue for) a case of plagiarism outside your own country. If you haven't already done so, try looking both your own name and the titles of a few of your more popular works with a search engine -- you may be suprised  by where they turn up.  In the early days of the Net,  before the Web existed,  the predecessors of Red Room were writers' discussion groups. I posted a humourously  perverse poem titled "Ï'm in Love With My Hoover."   Some time later, I got the same poem emailed to me from another group -- with my name no longer as author -- and the notation "I don't know who wrote this, but check it out!" Unknown to me, my digital progeny had been sailing the seas for a while since I launched it.

OK, this is getting too long for one blog.  In my next one, I'll look at the whole phenomenon of Web 2.0 (which includes social networking and user-created sites like Wikipedia) , and the growth of "mash-up" culture, which raise the question of whether the very nature of intellectual property is changing as we move to a more communal, everyone's-a-creator mode.



2 Comment count
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you live by sword...

I agree with you totally about the dangers of publishing things on the web, I am quite nervous about the first time someone swipes a whole novel (although you know first hand with someone swiping your poem) and claiming it as their own.Unfortunatly we live in a day and age were intellectual property is looked on poorly in many countries and around the world you find what are essentially pirated copies of whole books in places where you used to find only pirated copies of CDs.
Bur what is the alternative? Do we stop publishing on websites like Red Room and MySpace ? The only other alternative I see going back to the "good old days" when publishing companies controlled nearly everything. So perhaps in revolutionizing how distrbuting books,which is good for authors and readers alike, we have created a necessary evil which is we lose some of the security of our work. I don't know the answer, and to be honest hadn't even thought of the problem you mentioned until you posted you blog. I would be curious to hear what you, or other people say.

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Thanks Joshua...

for your long and interesting comment. No, I see no point in going backwards... the Web is here, so writers should use it to their best advantage.
However, I think it's worth all of us looking a bit into things like how you register/maintain copyright of a new work; how much to put on the Web to entice readers/agents/publishers, without giving too much away; and using file formats like .pdf which make it much harder to steal or excerpt a posting digitally. You can but digital watermarks on posted materials, proclaiming copyright; and it also possible to "lock"files so they can be read by not digitally copied from websites. I think, unfortunately, we all need to inform ourselves about these issues.