Monday, July 19, 2010

Rethinking Internet "Plagiarism"

In 1998, I published the above Op-Ed in the New York Times. I had found several articles I'd written reprinted on the web -- retyped, really, with several errors -- without permission, payment or recourse, and wondered what this meant for the future of journalism. 

I cited other then-current examples of misappropriation: a Mary Schmich essay that had been circulating as a graduation speech by Kurt Vonnegut; a Tom Tomorrow cartoon and an Ian Frazier piece which had been stripped of authorship. I concluded, "It looks as if the only possible policeman of the Internet may turn out to be the Internet itself." 

I was reminded of that line this weekend when I tried Googling my old Terrence Malick article (to illustrate my previous blog post). 

Instead, Google directed me to a blog by Jeffrey Wells, which told of his Terrence Malick piece that ran a decade after mine -- for the same editor! -- which he admitted "pilfered from" my original piece, whose title he recalled, but not  the author nor publication. 

Annoyed, I wrote to Wells,
who I'd briefly crossed paths with ages ago, to gently remind him. Duly contrite, he nicely posted a correction (one of the improvements wrought by the Internet) as well as a new story linking to my blog. He pointed out that if an article was published pre-Internet and hasn't subsequently been archived (the Times is in fact one of the only places that has done this), in today's world, for all intents and purposes, it doesn't exist.

That is a weird turn of events. When I first started in journalism, here's how you had to research: you went to the library and looked at microfiche, or a bulky green bound series of reference books called "Essay and General Literature Index" that annually catalogued articles by topic. Or, if your publication was flush, you could use their Nexis/Lexis account to get a dot-matrix printout of past articles from the few publications that Nexis/Lexis deemed worthy of subscribing to. For my Malick piece, I remember a friend snuck me into the Time magazine library so I could sift through their manila Malick research folder. 

(I Googled, and Essay and General Literature Index and Nexis/Lexis live on electronically, but I don't know anyone who uses them.)

After California magazine went out of business, I feared all my reporting would be lost, so I became my own archivist. I literally mailed photocopies to the Lincoln Center Performing Arts Library and the AMPAS library in Los Angeles to be filed in their Malick folders.
(No doubt this is where Wells found it, not realizing it had been assigned by the same editor he was working with.) And when my friend Bruce Handy visited the set of The Thin Red Line for Time, I sent him a copy so he could cite it.

Back in 1998, my concern was that the publications and authors of the pieces would not realize the benefits of all their hard work if people just circulated the pieces gratis. (Not unlike what the issues were for the Writers' Guild when we struck in 2007.) I cited how my Alicia Silverstone piece for Premiere had been appropriated by a fan website, instead of linking to the magazine's own electronic version.

 [My favorite memory of reporting that piece: I called the Chateau Marmont for a room at the last minute, explaining I was doing a cover story. With no other empty rooms, they gave me, at the regular room rate, the penthouse suite, where Montygomery Clift had recuperated from his car crash and Rock Hudson's lover lived, complete with multiple bedrooms and a canopied balcony. As soon as Alicia and her dog left, I called everyone I knew in LA to try to get them to visit me.]

Well, now I am rethinking my outraged stance. Premiere is long gone, and with it some of my favorite, most labor-intensive pieces: movie actresses discussing doing nude scenes; The Ice Storm cast on their own personal experiences of the 70's; the tragic fall of Richard Pryor. So I would be happy if a crazed fan took the time to type it all up so I would get some credit for these things.

Even my pieces for Rolling Stone, a magazine that is still relatively healthy, are not available on its website. To see them you have to buy the entire magazine on CD-ROM. (My Kids in the Hall piece is available as a PDF on their first season DVDs.) 
Rolling Stone Cover to Cover: The First 40 Years
Several of my friends who wrote pieces back then have painstakingly scanned their archives and created websites of their work, but I'm not sure if I'll ever get it together to go that route. 

What I have found this past weekend, though, is that the discussion with Wells and link from his blog have now both given me credit for the piece on Google, and exploded the number of eyeballs for my blog. This seems a lot more efficient than mailing my article to individual libraries. 

So maybe what I predicted 12 years ago has come to pass -- the Internet will save itself. Just not the way I expected. 

1 comment:

Gavin said...

My solution to this issue on my own website has been to post an article once a week--I can spare an hour every Monday, and it gradually builds up the archives.

Today, for example, I added a 2004 feature I wrote on Lenny Kravitz. I also indexed it, and wrote a short blog entry on it (providing material for the ever-yawning maw of the blog).

I've opted for plain-text versions of the articles rather than PDFs. This has the virtue of being more accessible to search engines, and allowing me to publish extended versions when articles got cut in half for no particular reason at the last minute. On the other hand, PDFs look slicker.