In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, Anne pours her little heart and soul into a novel which gets rejected by the publishers. In an effort to cheer up her downcast chum, her best friend Diana Barry sends the manuscript to the Rollings Reliable Baking Powder Story Contest with a few additions to the original: scenes in which the main characters discuss their love for the product. “Sweetheart, the beautiful coming years will bring us the fulfilment of our home of dreams…in which we will never use any baking powder except Rollings Reliable.”
The altered story wins first prize and while Anne fully appreciates her friend’s good intentions, she’s devastated by what happened to her beloved story. She tries to explain it by saying, “What do you think a mother would feel like if she found her child tattooed over with a baking powder advertisement?”
What does this have to do with the internet? Bear with me. The internet is a fascinating place. When you click publish, your creative work sails out into inboxes and social media. If it strikes a chord it gets shared and spread around. And if it really strikes a chord, it might not just get shared, it might get stolen.
This week I had to contact two different sites to request that they remove a recent piece of mine that they had copied word for word and pasted on their site without asking my permission. Did they mean any harm? Of course not. They just liked it and wanted to share it. They’re the Diana Barry in this situation. But there’s a right way to share work (that doesn’t involve copyright infringement).
That leads us to the cardinal rule about reposing content: ALWAYS ask permission in writing first. ALWAYS. And honor the author’s answer to your request. If the author does not give permission to republish his/her piece, it is illegal to do so.
Most people know that republishing without permission is a serious copyright infringement, but it still happens all the time to bloggers and anyone who writes on the internet. And the promised (and often negligent) perks of “free exposure” and “new followers” do not make up for lifting someone else’s work.
I think writers (especially on the internet) end up dealing with this more than other creatives. Most people would agree that taking a photographer’s images without permission and posting them to your photography site (even if citing the source) is not ok. In fact, you can get sued. Sharing the work with a new audience? Nope. It’s stealing. But the same respect for creative work isn’t always shown to writers.
I think things get complicated particularly when a piece deals with matters of faith. Obviously it’s fantastic to spread some new evangelization around! But just like we don’t expect writers of print works to allow their books be copied for free and watch their families starve (even if they’re writing about Christian matters), writers who primarily publish on the internet deserve the same chance to feed their families through their creative work.
The artist should be the one to decide how their intellectual property is being used. (For instance, myself as well as many other bloggers let Church bulletins publish our words when asked for permission but we may not offer the same republishing rights to a website that makes money per click by running ads, etc. It should be the writer’s decision.)
But there’s a great way to give some free exposure to writers you love: sharing their work properly! Bloggers love that. Every time you share a post, an angel gets its wings. Isn’t that how the saying goes?
When your work gets shared, you connect with new people and the discussion of your idea grows. And it is an exhilarating and fun experience. But having your work stolen? It feels like such a violation. It’s so personal. And it really feels terrible.
So how do you share someone’s work the right way? Most blogs have a share button for social media outlets. Click those magic buttons and you warm the cockles of a blogger’s heart. Or if you have your own blog, share a link to the post with your readers. I do a weekly round-up of links I’ve enjoyed and share them in a post so another blogger’s good work gets a wider audience.
You can even introduce the link with the first couple of sentences of the post’s intro or your favorite sentence from the piece. All of that is 100% above board and appreciated. Bloggers also love it when their ideas are engaged with and reflected on by other writers. Even if others disagree about what they wrote, expanding the conversation is fantastic. Sometimes I’ll discover that one of my posts has been linked to by another writer who shares things I hadn’t even considered in my original piece. It’s downright delightful.
So we’ve talked about how to legally share content, but there’s also legal “curation” of content that ends up just being bad internet etiquette. There’s a concerning trend that I think comes from the underbelly of BuzzFeed and similar clickbait sites that make money not by creating but by re-sharing material created by other people. In other words, these sites paraphrase and summarize original content and benefit from the advertising money the clicks bring in.
You see it everywhere and I don’t really expect much better of Buzzfeed, but as a Catholic, I think Catholic sites should strive for a higher standard of creating quality original work or at the very least engaging with and adding to a conversation instead of offering “you’ll never guess what happened next!” clickbait.
Last week I discovered that this is happening frequently to creative work even on Catholic sites. I was contacted by a site and asked for permission to repost a viral post I wrote and I declined. So, instead, this site paraphrased 2/3 of my post in a clickbait style and passed it off as a “news story.”
I felt like Anne. Except my baby had been tattooed with clickbait instead of a baking powder ad. The skeleton of my ideas was there but my voice and the nuance and beauty of the post were gone.
I asked my blogging friends, have you ever had something like this happen to you? And there were many hands raised. All the writers it had happened to were upset about how their work had been used, but there’s not really much you can do about it.
Was it illegal? No. And I think it’s good to assume that most people really do have good intentions and might not know the ins and outs of internet etiquette. Diana Barry certainly just wanted to cheer up her friend and share her work with others. But a baking powder advertisement wasn’t what Anne wanted her story to be.
When our work is used as someone else’s clickbait, I think it’s ok for us as writers to speak out and say, “I don’t like what you did there.” It might not be taken kindly, but maybe we can change internet culture just by speaking up a little bit more.
We can do better than BuzzFeed, O writers of the internet! We really can. I understand wanting to make a buck. Our creative work is our main income right now while my husband finishes an internship and I really enjoy being able to buy luxuries like gas for our minivan and health insurance. But let’s treat the creative work of others with respect. Let’s share things not just legally but ethically. We can discuss actual ideas. We can write original content. We can be so much more than clickbait. And we should be. Anne would be proud.