Thursday, November 4, 2010

A New Definition for Hubris

It's a slow day in my classes as students work on rough drafts and study guides which gives me a chance to catch up on some computer work -- working on the program for the fall play, writing tests, and a little net surfing. I tend to have Twitter always up on my computer because it's a way to keep up with the world outside the school walls and to send quick messages home. (These messages usually consist of "Hey, can you grab some lettuce from the store?" or "Did you remember to drop the Netflix in the mail?") I follow a lot of different people on Twitter, a lot of comics and writers and people whose work I generally enjoy. One of those people is Community creator Dan Harmon. Today he tweeted a link that led me to the story of Monica Gaudio.

Monica writes for a website called Gode Cookery , a site devoted to medieval cooking. This site featured a story on the medieval origins of the apple pie, including two recipes for the pie that date back to the fourteenth and sixteenth century. It's an interesting article, to be sure. Before you think that my cooking obsession has gone so overboard that I am scouring the net looking for medieval dessert recipes, let me tell you more of the story.

Monica was contacted by a friend asking her how she had managed to get her work in print. Monica couldn't answer the question because she didn't even know her work was in print. It turns out that the magazine Cook's Source had taken Monica's original article and published it virtually word for word. They gave her a byline, but never was she contacted for permission or offered any sort of financial compensation for her work. Nothing!

Monica contacted the magazine to find out what was going on and was asked what she wanted. Her demands were pretty simple (and completely fair): she wanted an apology on the magazine's Facebook page, an apology in print, and a $130 donation made to the Columbia School of Journalism (where we would hope ripping someone's work off is strongly discouraged).

The response that Monica received was shocking and, frankly, insulting. Editor Judith Griggs condescendingly informed Monica that anything published on the web is public domain.

The response continued:
"you should be happy we just didn’t “lift” your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. Now it will work well for your portfolio. For that reason, I have a bit of a difficult time with your requests for monetary gain, albeit for such a fine (and very wealthy!) institution. We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me… ALWAYS for free!”"*

* this response can be found on MANY websites and blogs reporting on this, but I took this specifically from Geeko System .

Ummmmmmm . . . where do I even begin?

First of all, what is published on the web is NOT public domain, especially when said content is explicitly copyrighted, as Monica's page was. Credit has to be given -- whether it's from the New York Times, Gode Cookery, or The Ginger Files.

Secondly, I challenge Griggs's assertion that this sort of thing happens a lot and that, therefore, excuses her behavior. There's also a lot of binge drinking, drug abuse, and sexual assault happening on college campuses, so is that all okay now, too? Shouldn't magazines be a model of good journalism rather than displaying the sorts of grievous ethical violations that would get a college sophomore booted off campus?

Even more alarming is the defensive posture Griggs adopts here. Telling Monica that her piece was poorly written and in desperate need of editing is pretty crummy, even crummier when you consider that the poor writing Monica supposedly displayed was her use of the original Olde English her recipes were originally written in. (I won't comment on the many errors in Griggs's response. I'm too classy for that.)

I won't even get into the clear fact that Griggs has no sense of irony. The offense she takes at Monica's suggestion that a donation be made to the Columbia School of Journalism, arguing that the school is wealthy and doesn't need the money. While you could argue that a publication that receives advertising revenue should certainly be able to pony up a small sum for a story they ripped off (and did not PAY to publish), the deeper argument lies in that Monica is not asking for that money to in any way enrich the Columbia coffers. She's trying to make a point about journalism and ethics -- a fact lost on Griggs.

There are so many more reasons why this issue is so troubling. As an English teacher who routinely has to bust students for plagiarism, this is sickening. If it's okay for Cook's Source to rip off the internet (and profit from it via circulation sales), why isn't it okay for my freshmen to copy and paste their book reports from Wikipedia? And why am I giving them a failing grade for doing so? The point lost on Ms. Griggs is that the internet is not, in fact, public domain. Someone went to the work of thinking those thoughts, writing those words, and for anyone BUT that person to then take those words and seek to profit from it -- whether financially, academically, or otherwise -- is just plain wrong. A journalist with three decades of experience should know better, especially when the fifteen year old high school student sitting in front of me does.

1 comment:

NICKI said...

Wow. Just - wow.

The title says it all (now that I know the old definition of hubris...had to look that one up!)