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01/14/2004 Archived Entry: "Update on unauthorized articles posted by Mega Publisher"

MONDAY I WROTE ABOUT ARTICLES PIRATED TO THE NET by a Mega Publishing Corp. It appears the situation's going to have an honorable ending, but it's still rather weird and definitely instructive for anyone who ever publishes anything. Here's an update.

Years and years ago, when nobody outside of academia or government had heard of the Internet, a magazine I now write for signed a contract with a publisher of reference works. That contract gave the reference publisher a right to archive electronic editions of the entire 'zine. Back then, that merely meant that a handful of researchers in libraries could search for articles, read abstracts, and for a fee order individual print or electronic copies of articles of interest.

Apparently, hundreds of magazines signed up for the same deal. They got a few dozen or a few hundred dollars a year from the access, and researchers got information. Everybody's happy.

Technically, those magazines were violating the copyrights of their freelance writers by allowing e-archiving. Unless publications make a special arrangement to buy all rights (which isn't standard), the writers themselves retain copyright to their works. (My publisher, for instance, owns first serial rights and anthology rights to my stuff, but doesn't own reprint rights, translation rights, film rights, or a host of other rights, including electronic archiving rights.) But back then, who cared? In a writer's whole lifetime, maybe a dozen researchers would access our work in that illicit archive. And it was kinda flattering to be "researched."

The magazine publisher's contract with the reference publisher was self-renewing -- always in force unless explicitly cancelled. Eventually he forgot it existed. Eventually the reference publisher got sold to Mega Publishing Corp. And each year my publisher's bookkeeper would get a small check from Mega Corp, wonder what the heck it was for, and cash it.

By this time, Mega Corp has similar contracts with nearly 700 (mostly small-to-mid-sized) periodicals. Then -- wham! -- it takes the full content of all 700 of these publications and slams it onto the Internet for access by absolutely anyone able to type search terms into Google.

No longer an obscure research tool, Mega Corp's archive -- which gives away every single bit of information these publications are selling -- is a major threat to small magazines' livelihood. Nobody in his right mind will buy what he can get free for the click of a button.

The good news is that it appears everyone is going to be honorable -- at least about the situation I stumbled upon. The Internet company providing the interface to Mega Corp's database agreed to pull the entire magazine out of its files the moment my publisher contacted them. Mega Corp sent my publisher a copy of his contract, which turns out to contain a clause allowing him to cancel it if he discovers that the contract is violating anyone's copyright. (And of course, it violates nearly everyone's copyright, since the 'zine is nearly 100 percent freelance written.)

It's still worrisome -- and definitely unethical. Mega Corp, a long-time stalwart in the publishing business -- is certainly aware that those 700 contracting publications contain the work of thousands of freelancers. And it's certainly aware that few of those 700 publications had (or have) any legal authority to re-sell freelancers' work. In short, they know they're violating copyrights all over the place.

By treating this as an "opt-out" situation -- waiting until writers or editors complain before removing the illicitly archived works -- they're ensuring that they get to keep most of those illegally held works in their archives. Because after all, most writers won't even find out, let alone complain. Piracy is such a standard practice on the Net that a lot of writers simply throw up their hands when they learn their articles have "gotten loose." But this is certainly the biggest example of corporate piracy I've seen. And it's a prime example of "we're bigger and richer than you, so we'll do whatever we want."

Posted by Claire @ 12:48 PM CST

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