Monday, August 27, 2012

Copyright or Copy Wrong?

Over a hundred years ago, when newspapers existed exclusively on paper and the fastest way news traveled was by tapping telegraph keys and not computer keys, newspaper editors established a practice called the “exchange.”  As I understand it, Newspaper A would send copies of its back issues to Newspapers B, C, and D, and they would exchange copies of theirs with A and with each other.  Items that were of more than local interest but not time-sensitive would be picked up by other papers and printed with the credit given to “(Exchange).”  Such items could include what we would now call “feature” stories, human-interest reports, and even poetry.

Why this bit of historical newspaper arcana?  Because you need to know it to understand the following poem, which I transcribe from memory:

I shot a poem into the air
It was reprinted everywhere
From Bangor to the Rocky Range,
And always credited to (Exchange).

In other words, once the woebegone poet got his poem into one paper, editors at other papers saw it in the exchanges and liked it so much that they printed it too, but somehow or other his name got left off in the process.   If poetry is the clear expression of mixed emotions, this poet had plenty of raw material to go on:  pleasure at the thought that lots of papers reprinted his poem, but regret that nobody but the local readers of the first paper to print it knew who the author was.

Technology has not eliminated this kind of thing, but it happens a lot faster now.  In fact, just since last week, it has happened to me twice, although I didn’t have the misfortune to see my work appear without my byline.  Here’s what happened.

Some people at a commercial website, which will remain nameless herein, but which caters to a technical and engineering readership, apparently read ny blog post last week about the submarine theater flipping over.  I’m not too surprised that such folks glance at my blog.  Google statistics tell me there are about fifty or so people who get it regularly, and many more occasional visitors.  Anyway, when they read last week’s post, they thought it was good enough to run in not just one, but two websites they operate.  So all of a sudden I appeared in their pages as an “editorial” writer, complete with photo and bio attached to the blog post.  But there was no mention of the fact that it was actually reprinted from another source.  The impression their readers came away with was that I had written it exclusively for them.

They must have a lot larger readership than this blog does, because I later got an email from Bob Phillips, the producer of the Aquarena Springs documentary from which I took the submarine-theater story.  Now, to be fair, I didn’t tell him that I was blogging about it, though I did write him a fan letter.  He not only thanked me for the letter, but said that he’d gotten 124 hits from the commercial website that had carried my post, and sold three videos as a result.

My presence on someone else’s website was news to me, and I promptly went over to the site and sure enough, there was my “editorial.”  A few days later the head of the publicity department at Texas State University emailed me to say he’d enjoyed the story too, which is how I found out about the second place they’d posted it.

Like the poet, I came away from this episode with mixed feelings.  I was flattered that the outfit thought enough of the story to post it on two of their websites.  But I was a little annoyed at their failing to mention my blog’s URL, and to give the impression I’d written the piece for their website.

This same sort of thing went on before digital technology made it so easy to cut and paste whole articles in less than a minute.  I have a curious old book with the title “Henley’s Twentieth Century Formulas, Processes, and Trade Secrets,” which is an encyclopedia of how to make everything from adhesives to yeast.  It credits almost no sources at all.  Internal evidence indicates it was culled from numerous old encyclopedias, trade journals, and European publications too old or far away to be likely to sue for copyright infringement.  But it took years to put that sort of thing together, and nowadays you can do it practically overnight.

So has digital technology made copyright infringement and its less serious but ethically questionable allied practices easier?  Certainly it’s easier and faster to electronically cut and paste an article today than it was in the old days, when you had to retype it by hand (two or three times in the old Linotype days), set it up, print it, ship it, and read it to do the whole thing over again.  But the ethics of the thing haven’t changed, as far as I’m concerned.

How was what I did with Bob Phillips’s video different from what the nameless website did with my article?  I did not present his video in its full and original form and leave you with the impression that he had made it solely so that I could show it on my website.  Instead, I added my own views, research, and recollections to material from his video and came up with an original work of my own.  And I stated my sources in the “Sources” section of the blog.  Far from being annoyed at what I did, Mr. Phillips was delighted, not least because the additional advertising brought him more business.  But the nameless website passed off my article as though I had written it for them and didn’t mind appearing in their pages to help them make money.

My intention is to maintain this blog as a strenuously non-commercial enterprise, and I plan to keep it that way.  Because I have another job that pays the bills, I wish to keep this blog free from even the hint of a conflict of interest by accepting no sponsorships or advertising of any kind.  You see no ads here, I invite no guest bloggers to advertise their wares, and the only reason Mr. Phillips’s video sales website got mentioned was because its URL is the only way I could refer to it in a way that is publicly accessible.  When the commercial website passed off my blog as their “editorial,” they gave the impression that I was working for them, which is assuredly not the case.  Which is why I was somewhat annoyed as well as pleased.

As for that poet, I hope I do not get into trouble with the literary heirs and assigns of Franklin P. Adams, a popular humor columnist of the 1930s.  He was the guy who wrote the poem.  Considering the subject of this column, it would hardly be fair to Mr. Adams to leave his name out.

Sources:  Although I won’t give their URLs here, you can find the websites where my post was reproduced by typing in last week’s headline to Google.  By now, the piece has even made its way to the Theater Safety Blog on  And Franklin P. Adams’ poem “Frequently” appears in An Encyclopedia of Modern American Humor edited by Bennett Cerf (Doubleday, 1954), which in turn reprinted it from his anthology The Melancholy Lute (Viking, 1936).  There now.

An Apology (added Aug. 28):  After I posted the above blog, I received an email from a staff member at, the "nameless" site I referred to.  He said I had given him permission to copy my blog over a year ago, and otherwise he wouldn't have posted it without permission, which is what I thought had happened.  I had completely forgotten about this exchange, so I extend my apologies for raking over the coals undeservedly.  They have agreed to list my blog URL in any future posts, and so I consider this commitment sufficient amends for something I told them they could do in the first place.

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