Monday, November 1, 2010

Can somebody steal your blog posts?

Dangerous Lilly is on fire recently - her most recent post is in response to Lelo publishing her entire review of their product on their blog without reciprocal links or credit. She's rightfully pissed off. That, in turn, has sparked a lot of debate about what is an isn't 'fair' in taking content somebody else has written and using it on your own website or blog.

As a journalist and former law student, I think there's a standard about using written content from other people's blogs that everybody needs to stick to, and some unrealistic expectations bloggers have about their own work.

The standard? As a good rule of thumb, you can legally copy, paste and post just about anything from anywhere as long as it meets the legal definition of 'fair use' and you attribute it appropriately. For a journalist, this means always linking back to the original source (the original blog post, or blog itself) and attributing the writing to the person who first wrote it clearly and explicitly.

For example:
Dangerous Lilly writes: "...they are using our content on their site without permission or even at the least a link in some cases."
If you follow that rule of thumb, you'll probably spend your entire career copying and pasting and I doubt you'll ever run into hassle.

However, there are some other important points of netiquette to remember:
  • Don't post the whole thing. If somebody wrote a blog post or review, it's great to post an excerpt from it, but bad form to post the entire thing. We bloggers write to encourage traffic, and if you paste everything somebody's written, it's doubtful the reader will bother clicking through the links to the original site. In that case, you've basically stolen their traffic.
  • Don't cut out the links. Many bloggers, myself include, use affiliate marketing links in our blog posts. These click-thrus help us pay for bandwidth, hosting, lube and alcohol (and whatever else people spend money on.) If you take somebody's copy from their website, it's only fair to keep the links from their text intact. If not, you're essentially stealing revenue from them as well as traffic.
  • Don't edit (unnecessarily.) If you're taking somebody's writing from their site, don't fuck around with it. That means don't reorder it, rewrite it or change it to better suit the point you're making. That's dishonest. If you do need to clarify things, use square brackets. For example, if somebody wrote: "They don't know what they're doing" and it's not clear who the 'they' is, try this: "They [The Republican Party] don't know what they're doing." If there are spelling errors in the copy, I normally fix them. If you're trying to make somebody look like an uneducated hick, and want to show up their poor spelling, use the term [sic] in square brackets to clarify "This is their fuck up, not mine." It's seriously passive-aggressive, though, so you're probably an insecure douche if you resort to that.
  • Make it have value. A good blogger takes content from somebody else's site and uses it in conjunction with theirs to enhance their work, and showcase what they've borrowed. If you've got an empty blog and are just posting other people's stuff to fill space, you can follow all the above rules and still be breaking etiquette. Even with reciprocal links, you're just turning their work into spam.
Now I've said that, there are a couple of rules that bloggers should be aware of regarding their own writing:
  • You can't own it. Your content from your blog is your own - but that doesn't mean you'll be able to keep it on your blog. If you're any good as a writer, people will want to take excerpts from it, link to it, discuss it and debate it. Most likely, bits will find their way onto other blogs, forums and websites. Expecting every blogger to ask your permission to use even a line of your copy is pretty unrealistic. As long as all the rules are followed above, it's generally in the legal realm 'fair use'.
  • Don't steal from yourself. A lot of writers assume that because they wrote it, it's theirs. For the most part, this is true. However, if you're talking about copy you wrote that other people have posted, you need to be careful. Some bloggers I know write sex toy reviews for Eden Fantasys and other companies. If they copy their review text from that company's website and post it on their blog - even though they wrote it in the first place - it's considered theft.
How come? Because if a sex toy company gave you a product in exchange for writing a review, the review now belongs to them. You no longer have any rights to it.

For a lot of non-writers, this is a difficult concept to get their heads around - but it's a cold, hard legal fact. It's the price for being paid (in products or cash) for writing. It's no different to a best-selling writer selling a short story to Playboy and then posting it to their own blog. Playboy would naturally ask: "Why would people pay to read your story in Playboy when they can read it on your website for free?"

But here's the good news. If somebody else is giving you money or products for your writing - congratulations! You're officially a real writer! (Now quit complaining and act like one.)

As for Dangerous Lilly - she totally has have a right to complain about the Lelo situation, because they posted her whole review, and didn't bother to provide reciprocal links.

That's a major party foul.

If they'd done both those things, not only would Lilly have less of a reason to complain; it's likely she wouldn't been that upset about it in the first place. Ultimately, that would have been in Lelo's best interests.