The ethics of copying authors’ stuff online

It’s too easy these days to duplicate online material created by somebody else – and which is their intellectual property.

Quick - burn the intruding historian! Avenge ourselves!
“Someone whispered to someone else who had a grudge over that issue of your splashing mud on their boots that you were a witch, therefore you are guilty without defence and will burn.”

Corporates have responded by lobbying western governments into making copying a crime that, certainly under New Zealand law, works on a ‘guilt by accusation’ basis, breaking one of the key precepts of western justice in the process. Cases so far brought before the New Zealand Copyright Tribunal have all reflected music copying. Some have been fair cop. But the concern from the ethical viewpoint is that there have been repeated instances where innocent parties were brought before the Tribunal, including a soldier who was in Afghanistan on combat duties when the alleged infringements occurred, back in New Zealand. As another case report shows, if you are wrongly accused, you cannot prove your innocence. It is this situation that is the concern from the ethical viewpoint. We are back, in short, to the moral compass of the Salem witch trials.

Authors’ online material doesn’t seem to get copied in quite the same way. But it raises a slightly different issue, because in this age of self-publishing, authors often post their own material for sale – and copying it without buying is, in effect, stealing directly and personally from them.

Part of my list.
I took this picture of the spines of some of my books. It’s been duplicated by others across the internet, but the copyright is still mine.

Sometimes the author’s stuff is provided free, but even then I find there are misconceptions about the way that works. In my own case, the stuff I post on this blog is provided gratis for people to read and enjoy, providing it is not plagiarised or somebody copies it without crediting me – see the license terms down at the bottom right. I post photos I’ve taken with copyright notice. Some of those images earn income for me elsewhere.

What I am NOT giving away is copyright. Or the right to be associated with my intellectual work. I’ve had my published work occasionally infringed, but so far, my online stuff hasn’t been – shall we say ‘re-purposed’ – by others. It’s been copied, re-pinned, re-blogged and so forth, but politely with credit according to the stated terms.

What I have discovered is that some people who copy stuff have no idea what ‘copyright’ actually means. I often see disclaimers such as ‘No infringement intended, copyright remains with the owners’. Recently, someone pinched 38 of my commercial photos in one go and republished them without asking. I issued a take-down notice. They complied, but told me ‘I just copied them, I didn’t take your copyrights’. Actually, copyright gives the holder of that right power to act when the material is infringed. The infringement is the act of copying without permission (license). So by duplicating and re-posting without license, you’ve infringed.

I’ve also seen occasional infantile ‘holier than thou’ remarks like: ‘I will only accept your criticism for my copying, if you can claim you have never done it yourself’.

I assume the people doing this are twelve year olds who haven’t yet learned another fundamental precept of western society in which it is assumed people can learn from past mistakes, accept they were wrong – and reform. It’s how the western justice system works – and if we lose that principle, as a society, we’re doomed. Is this really where the ‘me’ generation wants to take us?

Have you had problems with your material being infringed? What have you done about it? Or been able to do about it?

Copyright © Matthew Wright 2014

6 thoughts on “The ethics of copying authors’ stuff online

  1. Hi Michael,

    On Scribophile, a critting site, we get questions every couple of weeks on whether or not people can copy song lyrics into their story. Almost always, the answer is, if you pay for it. I don’t think people get the part about stealing, they just don’t see it. The part they get is that they can be punished.

    People think I’m being funny when I suggest they write their own lyrics, and tell them that, for Country and Western, just make up something about a pickup truck, a dog, the husband running off, and five squalling kids. Actually, Tolkien did this kind of stuff, inventing his own language.



    1. Tolkien absolutely led the way here – and seems to have been pretty keen on writing poems/songs anyway. I’ve recently discovered that some of The Lord Of The Rings lyrics were actually re-purposed from other work he’d done. The song Frodo sings in the Prancing Pony, for instance, came from a poem Tolkien wrote for a book ‘Songs of the Philologists’, which he and some friends assembled.

      I actually wonder about quoting lyrics in fiction – for the purposes of creating mood in the mind of the reader it might be enough to simply refer to the song. Or, as you point out, make up a new one. The reader cannot hear the song; and even if they did, would they themselves have the same emotional reaction to it that the author (and thence their character) does? The key thing is how the character responds to the song and whether the author can transfer that response as an emotion to he reader…which doesn’t necessarily mean quoting the lyrics.


      1. We can’t hear the music, except we can, if it is a well known song. My thought had been to use two different Country and Western songs, with the setting at a camp ground, where everyone is dancing in grand style. I was going to cut in snippets, as he led her around the floor, swung her out and reeled her in, and fill in with her thoughts about what was happening.

        Oh well, I guess I’ll need to come up with enough of my own song to make it seem realistic. And…when they make the movie, I will have the song rights too, ha.



  2. Tangential, but fair use for music (scholarship) hinges on whether an excerpt is performable–you can quote phrases and reproduce a few measures of score, but never a whole movement or even a verse of a song…unless you get permission. It’s a real challenge for scholars working on popular music who want to publish books.


  3. So far. I’ve not had this happen. The hard one for me is pictures. I try to obtain public domain or use my own as much as possible. I just don’t feel right using someone else’s work even if I give them credit for it in the caption. I do it, I just don’t like to.


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