Pirate Publishing

How one company pushes the limits of copyrights in cyberspace


Environmental Web ‘zine Science and the Environment (S&E) is taking recycling to a new extreme. They’re plundering content from other magazines, on- and offline, and composting it as their own.

Propagated by the Alexandria, Virginia-based Voyage Publishing, S&E calls itself an “Electronic News Summary Magazine,” culled from “well over 500 sources” — including Smithsonian, Reason, The Wall Street Journal, and The Los Angeles Times.

Publisher John S. Quackenboss says the 80 stories in each issue “try to present both sides” of tough environmental issues “like global warming.” Editor-in-Chief Matthew Hammond boasts that “S&E circumnavigates the globe in search of the most intriguing environmental stories.”

What Hammond and Quackenboss don’t say is that these “summaries” are revisions, re-published in many cases without permission, sometimes nearly verbatim — and that S&E is selling them on a CD-ROM for $24.95. Quackenboss admits that he doesn’t “specifically solicit permission” to use these articles, but claims that he has “never run into problems with publishers for doing this.”

Mother Jones first learned of S&E when one of our writers discovered a version of her article from our July/August 1996 issue on the S&E site. After she confronted them, S&E removed her story, but there are still 79 articles from other magazines currently on the site.

According to Rex Heinke, a Los Angeles-based attorney who deals regularly in online copyright issues, S&E may be in a dangerous situation. “The basic rule,” says Heinke, “is that you can copy facts, but not the writer’s actual expression.” If a re-published work is “substantially similar” to the original, he says, there’s a claim for copyright infringement.

Discover may have just such a claim. As one of S&E‘s favorite sources, the science magazine has had eleven pieces summarized — including one from their Sep tember 1996 issue that’s nearly verbatim — all without the consent of Discover‘s Syndication Manager Marcia Bell. “This summary stuff isn’t going to fly,” she says. “If something is substantially similar, then they stole it.”

“Copyright attorneys,” says Quackenboss “have assured [S&E] that as long as the summaries are accurate rewrites…we are not in violation of the law.” But he could be facing fines of up to $20,000 per work for copyright infringement if those attorneys are wrong.

The copyright laws of the print world are equally valid in cyberspace, says intellectual-property lawyer Karl Olson, although “there are situations on the Net in which it’s harder to apply them.”

So how are copyrights handled on the Web? Many publications aren’t sure, but the hard-nosed Wall Street Journal has a comprehensive policy for online reprints — not surprising, since it’s one of the few major papers that didn’t sell its electronic rights to LEXIS-NEXIS in the ’80s.

Because the Journal doesn’t own the rights to freelance pieces, only staff-written articles may be reprinted, and only “exactly” as the originals, with a specific credit line at the end. Permission is granted for a one-time use of up to 30 days, then the piece must be taken down. Capitalizing on the fact that, in contrast to hard-copy versions, a Web article’s actual exposure can be monitored, the Journal charges $0.25-$0.50 for each hit, or at least $500 for the month.

Still, foresight is no guarantee against re-publishing without permission — S&E recently summarized the Journal‘s July 18,1996 story on pesticide regulations. Like many of S&E‘s summaries, the piece isn’t an exact copy, but still bears the writer’s name, which makes for a touchy situation that isn’t easily resolved. “If you put someone’s name on something and they had nothing to do with it,” says Heinke, “then you have a claim for false designation of ownership.”

One way to verify the authenticity of a reprinted work is by linking to the story’s source, as the Journal requires. Ironically, while S&E uses the Web to find content, they fail to provide links to many of the sites they’ve taken stories from. Quackenboss says that’s because they’re “trying to link to sites that expand on the article.” And, since “the reader can retrieve the original through paid databases such as LEXIS-NEXIS< a>,” he thinks that’s fine.

But what about S&E‘s CD-ROM, which includes all 320 stories from their first four issues? Quackenboss claims Voyage hasn’t “moved enough CDs to make a difference” — but he’s still selling the work of other writers and not paying them, or, in many cases, even letting them know.

Situations like these are a hot issue with the National Writer’s Union (NWU), which is currently backing the lawsuit filed against several major electronic libraries that reuse freelance work without the author’s permission. “We want a free flow of information on the Net,” says Irvin Muchnick, the NWU’s director of licensing, “but we also want our fair share.”

How to get that fair share? Lawyers Heinke and Olson advise writers to be vigilant to make sure no one’s using their work on the Web. By entering their names on a major search engine, authors can find out where their work is showing up — and that’s an option they never had with hard copy versions. After all, says Heinke, “How many people go around reading every other book to make sure their work isn’t being copied?”