Have you ever had someone steal your idea and use it in your stead?


Have you ever written something only to find it wholly copied, pasted, and published — without your consent — on another site you do not own?

How do you fight the theft of ideas and content?  Do you address every abuse?  Or do you pick your battles? 

Another sticky matter is — “Fair Use” — and its ramifications for the original Copyright holder and the person trying to transform, or just use, the original text in a reshaped context.

The Center for Media Literacy tries to give some guidelines for the meaning of, and the employment of, the doctrine of Fair Use:

Fair use is the right to use copyrighted material without permission or
payment under some circumstances–especially when the cultural or social
benefits of the use are predominant. It is a general right that applies
even in situations where the law provides no specific authorization for
the use in question–as it does for certain narrowly defined classroom
activities. …

Fair use is flexible; it is not unreliable. In fact, for any
particular field of critical or creative activity, lawyers and judges
consider expectations and practice in assessing what is “fair” within
that field. In weighing the balance at the heart of fair use analysis,
judges refer to four types of considerations mentioned in the law: the
nature of the use, the nature of the work used, the extent of the use,
and its economic effect (the so-called “four factors”). This still
leaves much room for interpretation, especially since the law is clear
that these are not the only permissible considerations. So how have
judges interpreted fair use? In reviewing the history of fair use
litigation, we find that judges return again and again to two key
questions:

• Did the unlicensed use “transform” the material taken from the
copyrighted work by using it for a different purpose than that of the
original, or did it just repeat the work for the same intent and value
as the original?

• Was the material taken appropriate in kind and amount, considering the nature of the copyrighted work and of the use?

If the answers to these two questions are “yes,” a court is likely
to find a use fair. Because that is true, such a use is unlikely to be
challenged in the first place.

I get Fair Use inquiries all the time — usually from students that have copied and pasted the entire context of my articles and then been rightfully accused of plagiarism by their schools.  They do not understand how their behavior infringed on my rights. 

I was fascinated by JK Rowling’s successful attempt to claim a Fair Use infringement against a Harry Potter Lexicon book.  Rowling won in court by claiming the Lexicon book only copied her work without transforming it with analysis or scholarly insight.   

How do you deal with requests to use your writing?  Do you invoke your absolute right to your Copyright?  Or do you encourage the free — but fair — use of your work as long as you are acknowledged as the author of original record and no money is made off the secondary publication?

30 Comments

  1. A few years ago – actually, six years and five months ago (time passes fast, or one hour at a time depending on how you look at it) I wrote an article for Go Inside Magazine called A Little Thanks to Rabbi Goodman and not too long after that, I got a request from a religious organization that wanted to reprint the article, verbatim, in their electronic newsletter. I remember I asked you what I should do about it and you said in your response that I should ask for a flat fee of $500 for reprint rights.
    Naturally, I never heard back from them – not even a “No thanks!” or any such thing.

  2. Gordon —
    I remember that episode! I also know I’ve written a couple of Urban Semiotic about people stealing our GO INSIDE articles! People want our something for their nothing. We must place value on our work or no one else will.
    The right to reprint is something that has value and anticipation and when people ask for the terms of the republication and then wither away in disgust — it says more about their values than the value your place on your work.
    We must not be tempted by the temporary or the possible. Only the now and the consecrated matters.

  3. I’ve had a few of my ideas stolen, David. And every time I’ve walked away from the situation and told myself that the idea wasn’t my last.
    I think the first time was early in my career when a colleague claimed one of my ideas as his and put it in his portfolio. And the other incident i remember was when the person that i was reporting to in my last job in advertising brazenly told me he’d come up with the idea that I’d told him about just the day before. it was very ugly.
    And then there was this short fiction piece that I’d written long back and put up online, that was reprinted on a website under my name. I was fine with that because the context of the subject coincided with the intent of the publication.

  4. What terrible stories, Dananjay!
    I produced a TV show I wrote, edited and directed and paid for out of my own pocket. One of the actors in the shows put on his resume “Executive Producer” of the series and I only found out when another contact showed his “outstanding” resume.
    I confronted the actor about it — he did nothing but act in the scenes — and he said that since he had to “pay for his own gas” that entitled him to an Executive Producer credit.
    I still didn’t learn my lesson — I later worked on a crew for a TV show he was producing — and he promptly left me uncredited in the final production.
    Twice burned was plenty — I learned my lesson of him the hard, cruel, way.

  5. That’s even worse, David!
    But at least your credits stayed on the TV Show and all records of it.
    I’m surprise you still worked with him after all that!

  6. He was very slick and manipulative, Dananjay and I wasn’t. He knew that. He was about five years older than I was so he always had something of value he offered — but never delivered on in the end. He went West and I went East. I think he fits into the surface facade of Los Angeles much better than I would. You always felt like a chess piece he was manipulating in his game of chess.

  7. I’ve known that feeling, David.
    The person that I reported to had a history of stealing ideas from the people he worked with and I’d sort of been given a hint by someone who knew him and knew me but even though I got what he was trying to tell me I felt that it couldn’t happen to me. That showed me!

  8. I think that’s important, Nicola. If you give credit, then “borrowing” parts of an article isn’t so bad.
    The trick that students have a hard time learning is how much they can quote without getting in trouble: A sentence? A paragraph? Two paragraphs? The answer is never popular — “It depends on how you’re surrounding the quoted material” — because that takes a lot of active thinking and writing.
    I hate the blog copiers — that’s why truncated RSS feeds are so popular now — that’s the only way to slightly protect your content from being lifted from a full-bore open faucet, but it punishes your loyal feed readers. There’s no other choice but to truncate if you want to prevent the outright, daily, theft of your material.

  9. Going back many years now to when I was researching for my studies – we were allowed to use other peoples work when putting forward and argument. We were expected in the social science to be able to say X argued in Y paper that Z happened – however A argues in B paper that C is the probable cause.
    The put your argument forward including more back up research or added reasoning as to why X or A was the more appropriate research – maybe larger sample size, more years study, broader field and how much commercial involvement or not there was in the subject matter.
    We were expected to be able to quote authors , research and context to back up our thought processes – producing their work verbatim would not have got us anywhere.
    Taking the Onion poem you used the other day – it was appropriate to quote the whole poem – a couple of lines would not have been enough – it was attributed and was put into context.
    For my BDSM educational material I like to read up on my subject – so the research, pull an article together then list sources, credits and further reading at the end. That way I can give an overall picture and the audience has further reading and information if they wish to use it as well.

  10. That’s just how you’re supposed to write a scholarly paper today, Nicola. You gather up the research material, compare it, contrast it, and provide your own original analysis. You use the thoughts of others to give those ideas new light and then you create your own light through the beams of understanding you now have centering in your mind.
    You also have to be careful that you aren’t claiming something in your paper that you say you know, but that you cannot know — if something is generally understood, that’s fine — but if you’re arguing something technical and specific, then you need to cite the source and point to how you came to understand that part of your argument. Excellent papers are always peppered with footnote numbers.

  11. Hi David,
    Very interesting article!
    I do have experience people stealing my ideas as I have a habit of announcing it in any public forum…
    I used to get pretty suprised about it – now a days I just keep my mouth shut.

  12. Hi David,
    Unless I have enough proof about it – I prefer not to confront.
    It used to happen mostly in workplace – for any troubled issue I used to be the first person to offer solutions informally which used to be picked by others and one fine morning I used to discover someone else took the credit for it.
    Now a days, I offer solutions officially, in written form.
    I don’t mind people taking my ideas but I should get the due credit – that’s it.
    Because “ideas” cost a lot.

  13. Both David!
    Some are absolutely oblivious and some do it knowingly – that just makes me hit the roof.
    You know who is what if you just observe their body language closely – without them saying anything!

  14. Being a team player doesn’t mean people would cash on someone else’s idea in their name – David, that’s hypocritical.
    I learnt it in hard ways – a normal method for me! SMILE!
    I came across a very interesting books recently where I liked few quotes and I wrote to the person for his permission to use it further, he was surprised, pleased, excited…what not!

  15. Yes David, infact I was surprised seeing his reaction and his reply was – “…in my 30 years of career in Advertising I always thought the moment I let my idea out it became a public property, this sort of courtesy is rare etc….”…
    That got me thinking, “wow, asking for permission should have been normal instead!”
    I will incorporate a few things from the book in my next article.

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