Internet-facilitated copyright violation is a big issue to those of us who are fiction writers, particularly those of us who rely on our pennies-per-word writing income for fun things like being able to buy food and pay rent.

It's trivially easy for someone to copy a story available on the Web and put it to their own diabolical uses. Of course, in this day of optical character recognition software, it's pretty darned easy to scan in a story from a book or magazine. And there are always good old-fashioned typewriters.

Many of the cases of theft and plagiarism I've been aware of have involved someone who simply copied a story by hand, actually.

The first case was an older student at my undergrad college who, when faced with a deadline to turn in a story for a creative writing class, simply typed up a copy of a story he'd seen and liked in a literary magazine. The professor just loved the story, and encouraged his student to submit the story to the campus creative writing contest. Not wanting to 'fess up, student did, and the story won, and it was published in the campus literary magazine. The plagiarism was discovered months after the story's publication by a professor at a different college who recognized the tale. The student was forced to return his contest winnings, of course, and I believe he was flunked post-class. His rationale for plagiarizing the tale? "It was the kind of story I always wanted to write."

A more recent case involved a Florida prison inmate who typed up a Geoffrey Landis story he found in a 1994 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine and submitted it to The Leading Edge. The Leading Edge bought the story and published it. The plagiarism was discovered soon after publication, as were several other similar plagiarisms that the inmate had committed.

The moral of this story? The moment your story leaves your control -- be it in print or an electronic copy -- someone, somewhere could steal it. They could plagiarize it and submit it as a class assignment or to a magazine. They could translate it and publish it in a foreign-language magazine. They could post it to a newsgroup or web page or pass copies along to all their friends.

If you write good, entertaining fiction or poetry, sooner or later your copyright's probably going to get violated.

I'm not telling you this to make you paranoid. The most serious infringements are rare, and cases of outright plagiarism that result in the stolen work being republished in a paying venue are inevitably discovered. Your risk increases as your publications and popularity increase, and short works are more likely to get reposted than long works (having said that, most of us have seen sites and servers where one can download entire novels by the likes of Stephen King and Ray Bradbury).

I've been seeing a lot of copyright-paranoia and overreaction amongst writers. On many of the writers' web boards and newsgroups I read, the knee-jerk reaction to any sort of unauthorized online reposting of a story or poem seems to be "KILL THE BASTARD! NUKE HIM FROM ORBIT! LEAVE NO TRACE OF HIS CHARRED BODY RECOGNIZABLE!!!"

More personally, a writer whose work I had published several times in my online SF magazine contacted me last year and requested that all his work be removed from my archives. He explained that he had discovered one of his pieces had been posted without his permission to an amateur Tripod site, and as a result he was contacting all the online publications he'd worked with and having them remove his work from the web. He implied he was sticking with print publications from then on out (I guess he thought that would make him safe -- I should probably have suggested he have a chat with Geoff Landis).

He'd found the offending page by doing a web search on his name, which is a good tactic to use to find out if your work has been posted someplace without your permission (to ferret out online plagiarism, you need to do searches on individual lines from your work).

If you are concerned about your copyrights, you should regularly check -- say, every six months or so -- to see that your work hasn't gone astray on the web. Your work is your property, and if you rely on your writing income, it's your life. You should protect it. If you ignore repeated unauthorized repostings/reprintings of a work, it could create a precedent in which a court might later decide that the work has fallen into the public domain.

However, once you discover a copyright infringement, you should evaluate the nature of that infringement, its effect on you, and stage an appropriate, rational response.

If you wake up to find a rabid, slavering wolf menacing your children in your yard, grabbing your shotgun and blasting the beast is an entirely appropriate response. However, if wake up to find a Pekinese puppy digging in your flowerbed, grabbing the shotgun is not an appropriate or rational response.

As in the animal world, there are a lot more Pekes than wolves out on the web. Aside from discouraging plagiarism, the U.S. public school system regrettably does not educate most students about copyright issues. And people in other countries have very different cultural and legal ideas about intellectual property. So, in many instances, if your story gets posted by someone to Usenet or a website, it's being done by a fan, or by someone who's trying to set up an online library (like we have here at e2) in the spirit of freedom of information.

If you find your work's been reprinted or reposted without your permission, take a deep breath and do some evaluation.

If you've found some bozo who's trying to pass off your work as his/her own, or if you found your work in a venue that is slickly-produced and clearly for-profit, then by all means drag out the big guns and raise hell.

But if the webpage/zine/whatever seems to be run by amateurs or fans and your work has been properly attributed to you, take another deep breath, and follow these simple steps:

  1. Take a moment to feel flattered. People don't steal/copy stuff they think is worthless. If your work's being reposted, that means people think it's good.

  2. Now, think about why you wanted to become a writer in the first place. Was it that ever since you were old enough to read, you loved literature and admired writers who could pen amazing, compelling tales and evocative poems and you wanted to be just like them when you grew up? Did you get into this business because you feel compelled to write and you hope that ultimately your work will be read and appreciated by people all over the world? Is the money you make from your writing your end goal, or is it mainly a means to free you from other work so you can keep writing?

  3. Now, consider your own behaviors. Have you ever:
    • taped/ripped someone else's CD or album for your own use, or let someone else copy one of yours?
    • "borrowed" a piece of software from an acquaintance?
    • used shareware and not paid for it?
    • photocopied newspaper or magazine articles and distributed them to friends, coworkers, or students?
    • bought a used CD or used book rather than buying a new copy?

  4. If you answered "yes" to any of the above, consider the effect your actions had on the income of the people who created the materials you've used. Most of us have done these things -- I know I was guilty of all of them during my days as a penniless grad student. And buying/selling used books and CDs is an accepted practice; the FBI isn't breaking down the doors of places like Half Price Books for copyright violation. Sometimes, it's the only way you can obtain an out-of-print book or recording. And yet buying a used CD is in some aspects technically a copyright violation; some law states that you're not buying a physical object -- the CD -- so much as you're buying an individual license to listen to the music (every so often, someone from the music industry will attempt to crack down on the sale of used CDs). Regardless of current interpretations of copyright law, an author or musician receives no compensation when you buy his or her used materials.

  5. By now you should be feeling calmer. You should have perspective. If you still feel that the presence of your story or poem on the site is harmful to you, work from the assumption that the person who reposted your work was well-meaning but clueless. Write a polite letter or email to the page owner. Thank them for their interest in your work, then explain the impact copyright infringement has on your livelihood, and request that they remove the materials.

  6. If your letter does not receive a satisfactory reply and your work remains on the site after a week or so, write a very polite letter to the ISP hosting the site. Explain the situation and request that they remove your materials.

  7. If after a week you receive no reply from the ISP, follow up with another letter. If you receive no reply and you feel the matter is worth pursuing, seek legal counsel. Professional writers' organizations like Horror Writers Association and the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America can often help. And if the stolen work has been recently published and is still in print, enlist the help of your publisher; larger magazines and book publishers have in-house legal staff and can therefore stage much more effective legal action against a thief or plagiarist than you as an individual can.

    Be aware that if you're dealing with a foreign site and you're working by yourself, it'll be difficult at best to force them to do something they don't feel like doing (and if you've offended them with a nasty letter, they won't want to do anything for you).

The goal here is simple: protect your work without alienating your fans. If you find a misguided fan, educate him. Be nice to him. Recruit him to your cause. If you find some kid has reposted your story on his web page, and you send him a nasty letter threatening a lawsuit, he'll probably take your story off his site. But I guarantee you he'll also be all over the web telling his buddies what a jerk you are. And guess what? He'll never buy your stuff again, and likely many of his buddies won't, either.

For instance, Gary A. Braunbeck discovered that a young woman had posted several paragraphs of his story "The Dreaded Hobblobs" on her homepage. She'd properly cited him and the story's title, but of course hadn't asked for permission. He didn't feel that having the excerpt up on her Geocities site was harmful to him -- he said he felt a bit flattered that she evidently thought so highly of the story -- but he also didn't want to create a precedent of simply ignoring infringements. So, he wrote her a polite letter. He thanked her for her interest, then explained that she'd infringed on his copyright and that she needed to ask authors' permissions before she reposted any amount of their work over a couple of lines. He then went on to write that he was giving her permission to use the passages, after the fact, as long as she provided a link back to his professional site. She wrote him back a very apologetic note; she'd had no idea she was breaking copyright law. She put a link on her page to his site, and everyone lived happily ever after.

Protect your work. Be vigilant. But be rational, and be unfailingly polite. Be professional.

And the next time you're using Gnutella or heading to the library or swapping CDs and MP3s with friends, try to do unto other content producers as you would have them do unto you.

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