Cooks Source, Copyright And Public Domain

Cooks Source, a Massachusetts-based food magazine, recently published a story about apple pie. Problem was the story was copied and re-edited from the Web without the author's knowledge. The editor of Cooks Source says "the Web is considered public domain." For more on the legal issues here, NPR's Melissa Block talks to intellectual property lawyer Margaret Esquenet.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

Now a story about tech, tarts and copyright infringement that's triggered outrage.

Cooks Source, a Sunderland, Massachusetts-based food magazine, published a story about the evolution of the apple pie for its October issue. It appears with the byline Monica Gaudio. The problem was, the story was lifted from another website without Gaudio's knowledge.

When Gaudio discovered what had happened, she asked Judith Griggs, the editor of Cooks Source, for an apology. Griggs replied with a my bad, but added this: The web is considered public domain, and you should be happy we just didn't lift your whole article and put someone else's name on it.

Well, for some clarification on copyright law, we turn to intellectual property lawyer Margaret Esquenet. Welcome to the program.

Ms. MARGARET ESQUENET: (Attorney, Finnegan, Henderson, Farabow, Garrett & Dunner): Thank you, Melissa.

BLOCK: What about that argument that Judith Griggs is making. Anything on the Web is public domain, true or false?

Ms. ESQUENET: False. Public domain has a very particular meaning in copyright law, and it basically means that the work is free to use for anyone to do anything with without paying any sort of royalty.

And so, what is in the public domain is very limited, and it's also governed by the law. And it's, generally speaking, things that are quite old. Anything written in the last 10, 15, 20 years, virtually impossible to be in the public domain.

BLOCK: Now, this publication, Cooks Source, which publishes both an actual magazine and online, takes material, or took material, from all kinds of places including from NPR, and NPR has now filed a cease and desist letter on that.

Is this a common thing? Do you see this a lot, especially on the Web where it seems like it's kind of - a lot of the time it's a conglomeration of all kinds of stuff from different sources.

Ms. ESQUENET: It is an incredibly common thing on the Web, and it is very difficult for copyright owners and authors to police. But yes, there is, I think, a culture on the Internet of borrowing from here or there, or taking a piece from this and commenting on this. And there is a fine line between taking a small bit of something, a piece of music, a piece of writing, and using that sort of as a launching point to create your own authorship, your own work, your own commentary, and the idea of taking something wholesale without really adding more to it that has a lot of value.

BLOCK: And for people who are publishing online, what steps would they take to protect themselves from something like this?

Ms. ESQUENET: The first step that I would generally suggest to clients is make sure that your copyright notices are appropriately done on your work, so anytime you put something up on your website, you put that c in a circle and your name so that people recognize that you in fact are asserting rights in the work.

And secondly, if you feel that the work is valuable to you, then go ahead and take advantage of the copyright registration system that the U.S. government has set up through the copyright office.

BLOCK: In this case with the original writer, Monica Gaudio, she asked for an apology - a printed apology, which she did not get. She also asked Cooks Source to donate $130 to Columbia Journalism School. She also didn't get that. But what she did get in the end was essentially a shaming in the public square on the Web.

Ms. ESQUENET: As a copyright lawyer, I think that's very interesting, because in my experience, there's been this sort of almost cultural shift saying everybody owns everything, and everything online is for free.

The fact that this happened I think is actually very interesting, and it shows that maybe there's a bit of a turning point that people are beginning to understand that authors should get compensated for what they create.

BLOCK: Okay. Margaret Esquenet, thanks for coming in.

Ms. ESQUENET: Thank you.

BLOCK: Margaret Esquenet is an intellectual property lawyer here in Washington with the firm Finnegan.

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