Plagiarism 101: Cooks Source and the Internet response

After a magazine editor calls the Web 'public domain,' Netizens respond the only way they know how: with large doses of irony

It was the online equivalent of a public stoning, but this time the victim was well deserving. Cooks Source, a formerly obscure magazine for New England food aficionados, was at the center of a epic kerfuffle over copyrights last week that demonstrates the virality -- and the viciousness -- of the Web.

In case you missed it, here's the backstory: Last Wednesday, food blogger Monica Gaudio wrote on Live Journal about how she discovered a blog post she'd written five years previous had been published by Cooks Source magazine -- edited, and with her byline. Gaudio had never heard of the magazine and investigated.

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It seems a 2005 post titled "A Tale of Two Tarts" -- comparing two recipes for apple tarts from the 14th and 16th centuries -- had appeared under the title "As American As Apple Pie -- Isn't" in the magazine.

Gaudio exchanged a series of emails with the magazine's editor, Judith Griggs. She asked for a public apology and a rather nominal $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism as compensation.

Griggs replied in a rather haughty fashion that she now possibly regrets. It's a long reply, and it's been republished ad nauseam by other sites, so I'll just summarize here. Griggs seems to believe:

  1. Anything published on the Web is part of the public domain, and thus fair game for republishing.
  2. Gaudio should be happy that the magazine didn't simply take her story and slap someone else's byline on it.
  3. The article was rife with "errors" (actually, medieval spellings of modern words) that Griggs had to correct.
  4. Gaudio should be paying Griggs for the time she spent improving the piece.

Neither Gaudio nor Griggs was prepared for what would happen next.

After Gaudio posted her blog entry, her friend Nick Mamatas wrote about it on his blog. Links to those posts got tweeted and retweeted thousands of times, eventually finding their way to the accounts of sci-fi writer Neil Gaiman and former "Star Trek: The Next Generation" star Wil Wheaton, whose combined Twitter reach exceeds 3 million.

Bingo: Instant Internet meme. Cooks Source becomes "Crooks Source" (and worse names I shan't repeat here).

The magazine's formerly obscure Facebook page suddenly became extremely popular, rising from 110 friends (or "likes" in Facebook-speak) to well over 4,000 in less than 24 hours, and as I write this, the number stands at 5,666. But nobody was liking Cooks Source very much. They merely clicked "like" so Facebook would let them leave comments on the site.

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