Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Dangerous World of Writing

It came to my attention yesterday that Rob Innis found himself in a difficult situation when he discovered that another website had published an article of his without his permission. His article had been expanded upon, but essentially, it was his work that had been used without his permission. He had already sold this article to a magazine, so Rob first made enquiries with the magazine to check that they hadn't authorised the use of the material. they hadn't.

The problem with the Internet is that theft (because that's what it is) is all to easy. People simply believe that what is on the Internet is free for anyone to use - it is not. But they simply 'cut and paste' and help themselves.

Sadly, Rob's experience is quite common. It hasn't happened to me ... yet ... or at least I'm not aware that it has, but I am aware that it has happened to others.

When Rob approached the website in question and pointed out that it was his text that had been used without his authority, the website removed the content and apologised. As I said earlier, many Internet users simply don't appreciate that text on the Internet cannot be taken and used freely as they may think, and when this is pointed out to them, in the vast majority of cases the text is removed.

If you find that this happens to you, consider taking the following steps:

1. Contact the website (there should be a 'contact us' link on the website somewhere) and point out that you think your text has been used. Be prepared to quote a date when your text first appeared. Rob's article first appeared in a print magazine, and obviously this could be verified from the issue date of the magazine. Because his article appeared in print first before the text appeared on the website, then Rob had to have been the originator and creator of the text.)

2. Explain that the text has been used without authority. Offer the website the opportunity to correct this. You may be happy to sell them the Electronic Rights so that they can use your material online. If you haven't already sold the Electronic Rights then they are still yours to sell. Name your price.

3. If they are not able to pay you for the rights, then simply ask them to remove the text from their website with immediate effect. If they're not prepared to buy the Electronic Rights, then you have the right to offer them elsewhere. they will not be bought though, if the text appears online already. If the site decides to buy the rights, ask them to attribute the text to you - ask for a byline - for the word "By [Your Name]" to appear by the text.

4. Visit the website to check that the action they've decided upon has been carried out.

What can you do to prevent this from happening? Sadly, not a lot. It merely isn't practical to view every single one of the billions of pages found on a website (a figure which grows every day).

You can use Google Alerts to help you a bit. This free facility allows you to type in a phrase, which Google then stores. Every time it comes across a web page using that phrase it will send you an email with the link to that page. Many writers use this facility to search for their name and the titles of their books because it points out websites that may be using the text from their books. Of course, the less common your name the better. Set up a Google Alert for John Smith and you'll be inundated with tens of thousands of unsuitable page links.

Stay vigilant, and remember, you wouldn't want someone stealing your text, so don't fall into the trap of stealing text from someone else. If you want to quote then tell readers who the source of the quote is. If you want to quote a lot then ask permission. Unfortunately the law in the UK says that people can quote a reasonable amount of text, but there is no definition of 'reasonable'. A 40 word quote may be fine from a 100,000 word novel but is it fine from a 50 word poem? If in doubt, ask for permission. It is the safest way.

Good luck.