06 January 2016

Mixed Feelings, Copyright Edition

by Robert Lopresti

"There are so many grey areas in Copyright Law that the publishing industry looks like a lint trap." -Peter Berryman

I had better start this thing by saying that I am neither a lawyer nor a copyright expert, although I know more about copyright than the man on the street. (I also know it's dangerous to be on the street. Get up on the sidewalk, man!)

Where was I? Oh, yes.

It happened that I was telling a friend of mine about a story I wrote many years ago, and I wanted to email her a copy. However, it turned out I had no electronic copy (it having been born several computer systems ago). Instead of digging up a paper copy to scan for her I thought I would try to find it on the web.

That may sound odd, but it happens that the original publisher (I will call them BuyerCo) purchased it specifically to run it on the web. I hadn't seen it on their website in years, but you never know.

Well, it wasn't at BuyerCo's page, but it was up on the web. Specifically I found it on the site of a middle school English teacher in another country. She had a unit about mysteries and she had chosen my story as an example.

Talk about mixed feelings. I was honored to have been selected, and pleased that students were reading my story, but had she put it up without permission? What exactly was that teaching the students?

The more I pondered the more entangled I got. After all, I couldn't exactly complain because my story was on the web. I had sold it specifically for that purpose! Maybe BuyerCo had a legitimate complaint against her (although I don't know what the fair use rules are for educators in her country), but they weren't paying me to patrol the web, were they?

After a long thinking session I sent a note that read pretty much like this:


I was surprised yesterday to find my story, "Title," on your website. While I am gratified to see students reading it, I am wondering who gave you permission to put it up for the public? I don't recall doing so. Perhaps it was BuyerCo, who has the right to publish it online?

In case you are interested, here is another story of mine, one that is available with no rights issues.

Best wishes,

The link connects to "Shanks Holds The Line," a story I had given Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine permission to put on their website Trace Evidence.

I received a reply the next day. The teacher explained that she had retired three years earlier and had had no idea the webpage was still up at all. A colleague had sent her a copy of the story for use in her unit on mystery and she had no idea how/where the colleague had acquired it. She told me she had just spent an hour figuring out how to get into the software, found her password, and taken down the page. And she thanked me for offering a different story to use.

I sent her a thanks for her service to all those students.

And so the story has vanished from the web once again, which brings up three questions:
  1. Am I better off because the story has returned to obscurity?

  2. Is BuyerCo better off because their property, which they have not used in years as far as I know, is once again hidden?

  3. And isn't copyright interesting?


  1. It really is amazing how web pages live on and on unless someone takes the time to pull them down. Schools are especially bad about leaving pages up "forever" once they've been created. I'm always amazed, doing research, at the number of pages up from classes in whatnot that were offered "spring 2001." When I try to find the professor, they are not even at that school any more. And looking up the course number usually shows it's been discontinued.

    Neither here nor there, I guess. But they say the mark of good writing is that it engages the reader. So there you go. It worked! :-)

  2. You are right- it is fascinating what lives up on the web and how easily even copyrighted works go into the virtual public domain.
    However, I think within reason having one's work out in the world is not a bad thing- especially if one has been paid at least once.

  3. Unfortunately, I don't think there's any way to protect your intellectual property rights once they've gotten on the web. You may still technically own them and be the copyright holder, but once the toothpaste is out of the tube, so to speak. Even our novels, which were never published on the web except as commodities to sell are being sold at pirate sites. And it's probably fruitless to try to go after them 'cause even if you win another one pops up tomorrow. I don't like it. And I tend to be a fighter, but some things you just can't fight.

  4. Web pages will live forever, unless someone quite specifically, and at great effort, kills them. As far as being on the web - well, I've got a fan in Shanghai who's translating my stories (at least some of them) into Chinese, and will continue to do it with or without my permission. But he gives me my by-line. So I'm saying it's a good thing. For one thing, I know better than to try to tangle with Chinese "copyright" laws, which are pretty much nonexistent.

  5. I had a similar experience with a poem I wrote, a parody of Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky," which showed up on a website called The Creative Teaching Space (http://www.inclueded.net/writing/creative/13.html) after it originally appeared in a literary magazine called Maelstrom. I was and remain flattered that they chose to use it as an example of parody, and I never contacted anyone involved with the site to complain, but I thought it would have been nice if someone had asked permission of me to use the poem.

  6. Me too, Barry. One of my stories wound up as a part of the curriculum in a Virginia high school. Like you, I never complained about not having been contacted about it, but I probably should have.

    Great column, Rob.

  7. John and Barry-

    I probably didn't make it clear that my final decision was more librarian than author. I wanted the teacher to think about the fact that she was effectively encouraging students to violate copyright. If a teacher asked permission to use one of my stories - in paper or a closed system - I would be delighted, as long as she or he "used by permission."

  8. I haven't faced this problem--yet--largely because I don't post short stories (only once). But I think you're right to ask the librarian or anyone else to take down the unauthorized page if nothing more than as a learning experience for everyone concerned. This is your property and you have a right to control it. But even after the page is taken down, it's still in the archives somewhere. As one of the other readers indicated, this is a losing battle, but I still think we have to fight it. I just blogged on this topic a few days ago also.


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