Equipping Writers for Success
The Writing Life
The Writing Life
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by Moira Allen
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That seems to be the opinion of a number of writers, editors and website hosts these days. Or so we have come to feel recently, when Writing-World.com seemed to be hitting the jackpot on what certain editors considered "favors" -- but what we (and the law) consider to be theft.
The first "favor" came from a newsletter published by a reputable writing group (we won't bother to name it), run by experienced writers whose stated purpose is to inform other writers about the business and craft of writing. Dawn was less than delighted to discover that this group had taken one of her articles off the Writing-World.com website and posted it in the newsletter. Unfortunately, the first Dawn heard of this was when a reader of that newsletter wrote to congratulate her on being "published" in such a prestigious venue.
Dawn didn't bother to point out to the kind reader that her article had, in fact, been published in an even more prestigious venue already -- a venue that had actually paid for the privilege of using her work. (Yes, I mean us.) She did, however, point this out to the editors of the offending newsletter. Their answer (paraphrased a bit): "Oh, gosh, well, (a) most writers are really thrilled when we use their material as it gives them extra publicity, and (b) we assumed that the material was copyright-free and for public release."
One might suppose that the copyright notice prominently posted with the article would have provided a clue as to the article's copyright status (that's why we put it there!). As for assuming that material found online is in the public domain or free for public use, that's the sort of mistake that one expects from, at most, utterly new and inexperienced writers or webmasters. It is not the sort of excuse one expects to hear from experienced, published writers who, presumably, are fairly anxious to protect their own written materials.
When Dawn pointed this out, she got the best excuse of all: "Well, actually, we farm out the newsletter to another organization, so we're not responsible..." Yes, you are. If your name is on it, you are responsible for what's in it.
Finally, garumping and harumphing, the newsletter apologized to Dawn and agreed not to post any more of her articles (or any others from Writing-World.com) without permission, even though, as they reminded us, most people considered this a favor...
Next to arrive was a link to a webpage run by a person whom I have to assume does fall under the category of "new and inexperienced." This writer (with, I truly believe, the best intentions) first contacted Dawn to ask if Dawn would consider writing a column for her. Dawn said yes. The next thing Dawn knew, one of her older columns was prominently featured on this writer's website, followed by the entire text of one of our newsletters.
This time I decided to get involved, and wrote a (reasonably) polite note to the writer, pointing out that the materials that she had posted were covered by copyright, that she had not received permission to use them, and that we did not grant permission to post our newsletters online. I also pointed out that the newsletter contained an article by yet another writer who owned copyright to that material and who would need to provide permission for such reprinting. I received no reply. The materials remained online. Finally, feeling a bit testy, I wrote a stiffer note, pointing out that the first warning had been the nice one, and that if she did not remove the offending materials, she was breaking the law and I would be forced to contact her ISP to request that her site be shut down for copyright violations.
At this point the writer contacted Dawn again (for some reason she doesn't seem to want to talk to me, possibly because I bite), and claimed to have written several e-mails to Dawn (which were never received), but that since Dawn didn't want her work online, the materials would be removed (which they were). But, the writer protested, most writers really appreciate having her put up "links" to their work... She was just doing us a favor!
So here's the plea: Writers, editors, website hosts -- don't do us, or any other writer, this type of "favor." Using someone's work without their permission is not a favor. It's copyright infringement. Put bluntly, it's stealing.
Both Dawn and the writer whose article appeared in the stolen newsletter are professional writers who get paid for their work. Hence, using that work for free isn't doing either of them any "favors." But the issue isn't about payment. The issue of theft doesn't arise just because a publication uses one's work without payment. It arises when a publication uses one's work without permission. The irony is that, in many cases, writers are more than happy to say "yes" to requests to reprint our material. The key word is "requests." All either of these folks needed to do was to ask.
Instead, they took. If one really believes that one is "doing a writer a favor," then there should be no reason not to ask that writer first, right? By not asking, one conveys the strong impression that one is not seeking to "help the writer" -- but to "help oneself."
The truth is that many writers, like Dawn and myself, really do appreciate being "sought after" even when no money is involved. Our primary goal is to help writers, not to get rich. In fact, the majority of my own articles on Writing-World.com are available for reprinting absolutely free. But it's not simply "nice" to be asked first. It's necessary. Before you decide to do a writer a "favor," do them the ultimate favor first and ask permission. Otherwise, you're infringing upon that writer's copyright. And the next writer may decide to bite considerably harder...
Moira Allen is the editor of Writing-World.com, and has written nearly 400 articles, serving as a columnist and regular contributor for such publications as The Writer, Entrepreneur, Writer's Digest, and Byline. An award-winning writer, Allen is the author of eight books, including Starting Your Career as a Freelance Writer, The Writer's Guide to Queries, Pitches and Proposals, and Writing to Win: The Colossal Guide to Writing Contests. In addition to Writing-World.com, Allen hosts VictorianVoices.net, a growing archive of articles from Victorian periodicals, and The Pet Loss Support Page, a resource for grieving pet owners. She lives in Maryland with her husband and the obligatory writer's cat. She can be contacted at editors "at" writing-world.com.