Earlier this month, freelance writer Monica Gaudio was published in an issue of Cooks Source Magazine, a small Massachusetts publication.
There was just one problem: the article, “A Tale of Two Tarts,” which traced apple pie all the way back to medieval times, had been published without her knowledge or consent.
Gaudio emailed Judith Griggs, the editor of Cooks Source, requesting that Griggs make a donation of $130 to the Columbia University School of Journalism as payment for the article.
Gaudio posted on her Livejournal blog Griggs’ emailed response, which contained a sentence that has echoed through cyberspace ever since:
“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!”
Unfortunately for Griggs, she put her own name to that email, and within days the text of the email had gone viral, rousing the collective wrath of Internet users. An article in the Daily Hampshire Gazette, based in Northampton, Mass., reported that Griggs was so swamped with phone calls that she was forced to disconnect her phone, and the magazine’s Facebook page had skyrocketed from just over 100 fans to several thousand — all so that people could direct their complaints to Griggs. Lists of the magazine’s advertisers circulated, and those businesses received hundreds of calls requesting that they withdraw support for the magazine. And Griggs was ridiculed far and wide.
Then came a list — compiled by the public — of Cooks Source articles, press releases and recipes lifted from, among others, National Public Radio, the Food Network and Vermont magazine Eating Well. Currently 167 items long, the document made it clear that Gaudio wasn’t the only one with a claim.
As incontrovertible proof of the uproar caused by the incident, the small, 13-year-old magazine has its own entry on Wikipedia.
We can all get caught up in the specifics of this case. We can harass Cooks Source advertisers. We can bombard Griggs with calls to the point where she disconnects her phone. We can shout new “But honestly, Monica” phrases into the Twitter and Facebook void, and yes, some people will see them, and maybe even laugh. We can ridicule the grammatical errors in the apology letter that has replaced the magazine’s website. We can unite around Gaudio’s cause — even donate money to Columbia’s journalism school and the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.
We can, and did, do all of these things. Griggs agreed to donate the money, and her two-person business is, if not flat out dead, severely wounded. One would hope that she’s learned by now that the Internet is not public domain.
But anyone who thinks that this is about continued attacking of Griggs and her advertisers is missing the point. Griggs took the fall of our righteous anger, but there are bigger issues at stake here. We’re angry about intellectual property rights, angry that something we wrote can be taken without our knowledge or consent. And we’re taking action.
In 2008, Slate music critic Jody Rosen reported on a very similar incident of plagiarism. He discovered parts of his own article on Jimmy Buffett printed under another author’s name in a Texas alternative weekly, “The Bulletin.” Digging deeper he found that the entire publication operated on intellectual property borrowed from Rolling Stone, “USA Today,” and a whole host of other primary sources.
As a result of Jody Rosen’s work on the subject, “The Bulletin” is now defunct, although it, too, has a Wikipedia page detailing the debacle.
But the Cooks Source incident is different. The massive upswell of citizen outrage took one woman’s story, posted on her Livejournal blog, and created an extensively researched, mass-edited Google document. Due to this spontaneous act of citizen journalism, the list of Cooks Source sources exists, even after the content of the website has been replaced with a not-so-contrite letter of apology. An army of plainclothes detectives sprang, seemingly out of nowhere, to defend intellectual property.
Long after Judith Griggs’ name has disappeared from the top Google search results, long after we’ve all forgotten the “but honestly, Monica” meme, we’ll still be struggling with this double-edged sword that is the information superhighway.
As soon as you’ve clicked the “publish” button on a blog post or a comment or “send” on an email and your words have been recorded somewhere in cyberspace, it’s a matter of about two seconds before anyone, anywhere in the world can read your work — or copy, paste, and strip the text of its rightful name and copyright.
But on that same Internet, there are millions of eyes watching, ready to fact check (and attack) anyone who plagiarizes, runs for political office, or for one reason or another falls into the public spotlight.
Does that mean this will never happen again? Of course not. As long as human beings exist, there will be those who try to make a buck or an A-plus grade using someone else’s work.
But honestly, Judith, for better or worse, the Internet is watching you.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at firstname.lastname@example.org.