5 Lessons From the Cooks Source Case for Freelancers

If you’re a freelance writers, there’s a very good chance that you’ve been following the Cooks Source case for the last week or two.

To recap what happened, Monica Gaudio, a freelance writer, discovered that an article she had written on the history of apple pies had been used in its entirety by a small New England magazine entitled Cooks Source. Though the use was attributed, making it a copyright infringement and not a plagiarism, she was understandably upset and sought an apology and a $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

The editor of Cooks Source, Judith Griggs, responded saying that everything on the Web was “public domain”, a gross inaccuracy, and said that Monica should pay them as the work required a great deal of editing. Gaudio posted a snippet of that email along with the story to her site and the story proceeded to take off and become a major Internet sensation.

Cooks Source had their Facebook page attacked with thousands of angry comments and the mainstream media began to pick up the story and countless stories were written about it. Some began to search through the rest of Cooks Source’s archives and found over 100 other cases of potential lifting.

Eventually Cooks Source met Gaudio’s demands and made the donation after a somewhat controversial apology. But despite finally admitting that they were wrong, they still decided to shut down.

While this is a pretty big victory for Gaudio (not to mention freelance writers in general) there’s still a lot of lessons here to be gleaned from this case and things to be learned from it.

Though there’s more than could ever be covered in just one post, here are five of the more important lessons to pick up from the whole Cooks Source debacle.

1. Register Your Works

If this case had been forced to go to court, Gaudio would have found herself with an extreme uphill battle trying to claim any significant damages from Cooks Source. Since the work, most likely, wasn’t registered with the U.S. Copyright Office, Gaudio would not have been able to sue until she had first received her registration and, after getting it, would have been limited to actual damages.

With no attorney fees, no statutory damages, a lawsuit would have been completely impractical, even for this level of commercial use.

2. The Power of Crowds

Since Gaudio didn’t have a legal recourse, she turned to the Web and to the mob and proved that getting a crowd to support you can be a very powerful thing and is possible, even for lesser-known creators.

This isn’t to say that it works every time, I know dozens, if not hundreds of authors in similar positions who were unable to muster this level of support despite trying.

In this case, the crowd was able to do what the legal system wouldn’t have been able to, force Cooks Source into doing the right thing. However, the case also raises serious questions about the danger of this method, considering that this could have just as easily been directed at a much less-deserving target.

3. It Was the Response, Not the Infringement

Speaking of the mob, though there was a great deal of disgust at the actual use of the article, such infringements are extremely common and, if Griggs had responded in a manner that was more rational, it is unlikely anyone else would have taken note.

It was Griggs’ response, not the infringement that brought the mob to Cooks Source’s door and eventually brought the magazine down. One simply can not expect this kind of rally for most cases of infringement where such a strong, stupid reaction is not received from the infringing party.

4. Copyright Ignorance Still Runs Strong

While on the topic of Griggs’ response, her mentality that everything on the Web is public domain and free of copyright restriction is, unfortunately, a fairly common one.

Though years of copyright lawsuits, news stories, settlements and other tales have done a lot to at least let people know of the existence of copyright, if not what the law actually says, there is still a great deal of misunderstanding and misinformation to be found out there.

Sadly, as this case also shows, many of the people with misconceptions are people with great positions of trust that can cause large headaches for freelance writers. They aren’t just teens setting up social networking accounts, they’re editors, publishers and large webmasters as well.

In short, they are your clients. Always keep that in mind.

5. There’s Still Support for Copyright

Finally, even though it can seem to be a bleak time for content creators with rampant piracy, plagiarism and other content misuses, there’s still a very strong understanding that copyright is important and that there needs to be fairness in dealing with the works that others have created.

Though the attitudes as to where the lines are drawn may be shifting slowly, the basic principles of rewarding those who create valuable content are still broadly understood and unfairness is still attacked.

In short, it may be a scary time and the Web may be a scary place, but it isn’t quite the nightmare many make it out to be. There is a great opportunity for a bright future online.

Bottom Line

In many ways, the Cooks Source case is very indicative of the climate for freelance authors online. People will, without much hesitation and often fueled by misunderstandings of copyright, will misuse your content without apology, but the broader Web understands that is not fair or correct.

In short, most people on the Web are good, fair and want to make sure that content, whether free or for sale, is treated appropriately. There are those who will misuse your work, but they are a minority and, in most cases, they can be easily dealt with.

Hopefully though, this case will cause people like Griggs to rethink their policies and make better decisions about how they use the content of others. That alone might be something worthwhile to come out of this very ugly incident.

Your Questions

Have a question about the law and freelance writing? Either leave a comment below or contact me directly if you wish to keep the information private. This column will be determined largely by your suggestions and questions so let me know what you want to know about.

Disclosure

I am not an attorney and nothing in this article should be taken as legal advice.

Comments

  1. Wow, I hadn’t heard the controversy killed the magazine! How satisfying.

    It does amaze me that publications try sleazy tactics these days, when the mob can so easily be harnessed to destroy them.
    Carol´s last blog post ..Top 10 Blogs for Writers Contest – Vote for Me!

  2. Wow this is a lot to think about. Here I was only worried about getting a job and not messing up the writing. I guess now I have more to learn. That’s ok though. I need to learn all aspects of the freelance writing world, and this is a very important part of it.
    Robert´s last blog post ..Hello Internet Wasteland!

  3. Great post! We need more sites that help writers find jobs!

  4. I’m sorry – are you suggesting that writers officially copyright every blog post or article they write? For many of us, doing just that would be a full time job! What’s more, the fact of having an “official” copyright is not legally necessary – it’s just a good way to have more documentation handy.

    What’s more, since more links to an article results in better SEO, I’m not even convinced that the Cook’s Source infringement actually caused damage. As you say, the situation was not about plagiarism – it was about overstepping fair use.

    Let’s say we went to court every time someone picked up a piece we wrote, reprinted it, and linked back to us with credit. Would we REALLY be doing ourselves a financial favor??

    • First off, registering everything wouldn’t be a full time job if done correctly. I wrote about the process here and it only has to be done once every three months for max protection:

      http://www.freelancewritinggigs.com/2010/10/how-to-register-your-websites-copyright/

      I agree it isn’t right or necessary for every freelancer, but but for many, if not most, it’s a potentially important step to at least consider.

      Second, the Cooks Source case didn’t link to the original article. In fact, it only provided her name as attribution, no link at all. Second, it is up to the freelancer to decide what is harming them and if they are selling a work, someone taking it for free certainly does do harm considering it does a disservice to those who paid for it legitimately.

      Finally, not every case ends up in court nor should it. Most are resolved at the cease and desist or takedown phase but if a situation warrants it most would prefer to have the option than not.

      This isn’t about suing every use, but about being ready should it be justified.
      Jonathan Bailey´s last blog post ..3 Count- Getting Gawked

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