Facing Plagiarism and Copyright Infringement

Heather Greene —  April 2, 2015 — 14 Comments

Last month, Taylor Ellwood, managing non-fiction editor of Megalithica Books, was contacted by Getty Images due to a photograph published on one of his blogs. In a post, Ellwood explained that he didn’t know that the photograph was a Getty Image and wrote, “I read the email, responded, and took the picture down from my site. I spent the rest of Friday taking all the pictures down on my website that I hadn’t taken, because I realized that if it could happen with one picture, it could happen with another.” He also admits that, in the end, he had to pay a fee for use of the image.

[public domain]

[public domain]

Copyright infringement and plagiarism are problems that haunt writers, musicians and artists, and are violations that appear to be increasing due to developments in and access to digital technology. Now it is easier than ever to both purposefully or accidentally commit plagiarism or some form of copyright infringement.

This reality hit the nation hard back in 2001 when Napster, a peer-to-peer music sharing platform, was sued by A&M Records. As noted in a Washington University Law School case study, the courts ruled against Napster, holding them “liable for contributory and vicarious infringement of copyright.” It was at that point that many people awoke from a candy-coated Internet haze and realized that, with the ease of creating, also comes the ease of copying.

As bandwidth increases, hard drives grow, and tech prices decrease, users become more saavy. It takes very little time to wholesale copy someone else’s work. Photos and graphics can be cut and pasted with minimal key strokes. Art work can be downloaded, printed and copied. Videos and music can be emailed. And, text is as good as a ctrl-c, ctrl-v away.

Some websites, companies and people have found technological barriers or policies to make the process more difficult. The New York Times, for example, doesn’t allow a cut-paste of its text or photos. Many commercial cloud servers will shut down the accounts of people who share music or videos. When you paste direct text from a site like Patheos, you will also get an html link back to the site. These methods may act as deterrents but they certainly do not stem the tide of violations.

In his blog post on the topic, Ellwood said, “Copyright is an important issue. As a writer, I respect the effort that goes into a creative work and the desire to be compensated. In some ways, I wish there was a Getty images enforcing my rights as an author, especially when I find that one of my books has been uploaded on the Web to be shared everywhere with no compensation coming my way.”

Ellewood is not alone in sharing those concerns. Started in 2011, a Facebook group called, “Pagans against Plagiarism” has become a gathering site for “authors and artists” to discuss direct violations, prevention methods and related concerns. The group also acts as a unofficial watchdog organization of sorts. One member said that the group provides excellent support and information on the subject. Unfortunately, the founders were unavailable for comment.

As recent events have shown, the need for such an organization is very real. On March 29, a Tumblr user announced the free download of 100 esoteric books via dropbox. These books were allegedly part of her collection. As noted in the post, she had become an atheist and is offering her digital collection as a last “gift” to the Pagan community. Within two days, the woman’s Tumblr account was deactivated and the Dropbox link removed. Despite this deletion, there are still two more similar offerings on both Google and Dropbox. Whether or not the two live sites are related to the first is unclear.

Another example pertains to the use or misuse of artwork. In March, Pagan artist Brigid Ashwood publicly accused fantasy artist Nichole Peacock of copyright infringement. In talking to Ashwood, she said, “Nichole’s work was brought to my attention by an email tipster who saw my work in her booth, recognized it, and had the good sense to take that photographic evidence …” Ashwood details her findings, including those photographs, on her blog. In a recent update, Ashwood said:

In my own case Ms. Peacock signed the cease and desist from my attorney, paid restitution/royalties on prints of my work that she admitted she sold, and she offered up an apology. I did, at that time, consider my situation with her resolved. After recent statements made publicly by Ms. Peacock I no longer consider our issue resolved, and I am exploring taking further legal action.

Ashwood has not only accused Peacock of copying her own work, but that of other artists as well. One of those artists, Selina Fenech, responded in the blog’s comments saying that she “will be dealing with it through legal channels.”

Peacock has publicly denied any wrong doing, saying, “How does another person have the right to say what affiliations I have with other artists? The background for my Steampunk Owl with gears is legally licensed from the talented James Hill with full permission. My Shaman is a tribute to the life of Suzanne Sedon Boulet who died in 1997.” Peacock adds that she is a “prolific artist,” suggesting that there has been some confusion. She was unavailable for further comment.

While artists, musicians, photographers and novelists are dealing with copyright infringement, writers and editors must be concerned with cases of plagiarism, which can take many forms. Not only must they be conscious of their own words being stolen, but also of inadvertently committing the act themselves.

Circle Magazine Issues 2014 [Photo: H. Greene]

Florence Edwards-Miller, editor of Circle Magazine, said “Circle Magazine has a policy that attribution must be given for all work not original to the author. In my time as an editor, the only issue has been with chants, where they’re often passed on by word-of-mouth at festivals, but without the author’s attribution. A few times I’ve chosen not to run with a chant or a quote when the original source couldn’t be confirmed.”

Edwards-Miller added that the magazine has had the reverse problem. She said, “Selena Fox and Circle Sanctuary have occasionally had to deal with situations where people were distributing our published material unattributed, or more irregularly, claiming it as their own. This has included chants and rituals, in addition to articles from the magazine, or our website. In those situations we’ve generally been able to offer what Selena Fox calls ‘corrective feedback’ to the people involved and resolve the situation.”

With the evolution of blog culture and visual nature of social media, photographers, both professional and amateur, have been hit particularly hard by this problem. As Ellwood found out, if there is no copyright indicator, it doesn’t mean that the photo can be used. He also warned, “If you sell a product or service on your site, [the site] is considered commercial, even if it’s just one product … That can result in different rates of penalization [for using copyrighted material].”

There are work-arounds, including creative commons, pay-per image sites, and public domain options. The rules and regulations on the use of each type of image are typically marked. However, Ellwood has another suggestion: “Take your own pictures … You own the copyright, because you took the picture. And this isn’t hard to do in the age of camera phones.”

In 2013, Soli a contributing writer at the Pagan Activist blog, offered her own suggestion, writing, “stop stealing from your fellow Pagans …” She noted how important and easy it is to quote, cite, credit and attribute. She writes, “In short, stop stealing. Give credit where it is due. Ask permission … We’re still a minority. We still have to fight for rights because of our religious and spiritual practices. Breaking the law does not do a thing to help us.”

Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Lupa

    As an artist and a blogger, I’ve known for a long time that just because it’s on the internet doesn’t mean it’s there for the taking; this was reiterated last year when Christine Hoff Kraemer, the former editor at the Patheos Pagan channel, reminded all us writers on the channel to get rid of any copyrighted pics. Wikimedia Commons is my usual go-to for pics for my blog that I didn’t take myself, and they make it really easy to find the attribution for artists who want at least a mention of “I took this photo”. Creative Commons is another good source, though you want to be mindful of the different attribution levels there.

  • In the case of the Tumblr user who posted the dropbox full of books, she did not post them because she had become an ashiest. She had posted them because her family, devout Christians, were making her get rid of her pagan related items and forcing her to go back into the broom closet. Just wanted to make that clarification.

  • Additionally, the Tumblr related Dropbox link and the remaining 2 live ones are not related. They are separate cases.

  • I’d like to address Ms. Peacock’s statement” “How does another person have the right to say what affiliations I have with other artists? The background for my Steampunk Owl with gears is legally licensed from the talented James Hill with full permission. My Shaman is a tribute to the life of Suzanne Sedon Boulet who died in 1997.” – See more at: http://wildhunt.org/2015/04/facing-plagiarism-and-copyright-infringement.html#disqus_thread

    First: Affiliations? The artists who have been documented in my blog post were also notified of the infringement and the blog post itself. Surely if there was an affiliation they’d be anxious to clear that up. Some artists have commented publicly on the situation, some have not. That’s their choice. That doesn’t mean the infringement didn’t happen, nor does it mean that the artists infringed upon are not pursuing legal recourse in this matter. I’ve never claimed to speak for anyone but myself. I’ve merely documented the situation.

    Second: Peacock DID NOT have permission to use Mr. Hill’s work until after she was caught. She’s re-writing history and mis-representing the situation. At the time I documented that infringement it was on-going. Mr. Hill has an agreement with her now, that doesn’t change the fact that she initially had used and sold his work without his knowledge and permission.

    Third: Susan Seddon Boulet is deceased but she has an estate that protects her work as it is not yet in the public domain. That estate controls the rights of derivative works.

  • Anne Hatzakis

    I have a blog called http://greekreconmommy.blogspot.com/ and in a recent post about being a (Relatively) Open Pagan there are FOUR actual links to things I am referancing…… If you are writing ANYTHING online it is rediculously easy to do what I do. It both preserves the source and prevents quotes from being taken out of context.

  • Desirée Isphording

    Ms. Peacock is obviously not that concerned with honoring Boulet’s legacy if she cannot even bother to get her name correct. It’s Susan Seddon Boulet, not “Suzanne Sedon Boulet.”

    Unfortunately I’ve encountered a number of people in the Pagan and magic(k) communities who feel entitled to the artwork and writing of others with zero consideration for the original artist or author. Even upon a polite and reasonable request that they try to seek out the creator to at the very least give them credit, they turn hostile. I’ve had my own artwork and words stolen with similar results.

    Several months ago, around Yule and Winter Solstice, I chose to leave a Facebook group due to the attitudes of certain moderators on this issue. One of them posted a gallery of holiday-themed Pagan art culled from the web by various artists. None of them had any attribution, even when in a small percentage of cases the artist’s name or signature might still be visible. When I asked if they’d be willing to do a little research (Google image search makes this a relatively easy process) to give the artists a credit and link-back, they flat out refused. I tried to start a discussion but had my comments deleted the following day. I began to research some of those images myself and posted a link to one artist’s store where she was selling prints of the art displayed in the group, and even that innocuous comment was deleted.

    Similar situations with other Facebook pages are noted in this article on the Inciting a Riot blog: http://www.incitingariot.com/2013/09/pagans-copyright-infringement-and.html

    • Thanks for sharing the Inciting A Riot blog post.

    • Wolfsbane

      Did you at least contact the artists whose work you were able to identify and let them know their property had been purloined and who had done it?
      By the way, you can get pdf printers so you can print a pdf of such deleted conversations and save them as evidence?

      • Desirée Isphording

        I had taken screenshots of some of the conversations on the page, but I’m not sure if I still have them. Their response was not pleasant (they also threatened to ban me if I brought up the issue of copyright and artist acknowledgement again) and I was very stressed out by the whole situation, so I voluntarily left the group shortly afterward. I no longer have access to those images. I have contacted artists in the past to let them know about infringement, but sadly I was so frazzled in this particular case that it did not occur to me at the time.

  • As a collage artist, I’ve long been aware of the various copyright issues. An artist (and not just the visual variety) has full copyright over their own work from the moment of it’s creation. Unless something has been released as Public Domain, it’s not up for grabs. (And as others have mentioned, there are varying levels of Creative Commons and other use agreements.) When in doubt, ask. And if you can’t find someone to ask, don’t use it.

    I can’t tell you how many times I had to explain copyright law when I worked at a copy shop. No, you do not have the right to reproduce your kid’s senior photo that you had done by a professional photographer; they own the photo and would like you to see them for reprints so they can continue to stay in business. No, you can’t make a coloring book out of copyrighted cartoon characters. And even today, as a graphic designer, working with client’s “found” images… it does not have to have a copyright symbol or notice for it to be protected. The ignorance of the concept astounds me daily.

    I see a lot of it in the Pagan community too, especially on Facebook… with people even going so far as to remove elaborate watermarks or copyright notices before sharing or passing out someone else’s work as their own. Most artists are fine with sharing/re-posting, as long as our credit information is left intact. I’ve started double-watermarking all my own photos on social media: a visible copyright notice at the bottom, with a more hidden and harder-to-remove one elsewhere on the work. But even that doesn’t guarantee someone won’t rip you off, especially if they think you’re too poor to fight them in court.

    • Lupa

      The watermark removal makes me want to spit nails–at the person removing the watermark!

  • Philipp Kessler

    As my blogging has become more prolific, I’ve begun using my own images. As Taylor says, in the age of camera phones it is really easy to take your own photos. I do use images I find on the net, though. I cite the artist, link to the website, and otherwise give credit where credit is due. Obviously I am going to seek permission to use the art work when it is under copyright. I prefer to use either my own images or creative commons/public domain. But sometimes I just love an image so much I go out and ask the artist.

    I’ve also taken to keeping me eyes open. Social media has made it far too easy for someone to see a picture they like, download it and use it for whatever they want. I’ve caught at least two unauthorized uses of art work by artists that I know personally. When I see that, I message, call, or otherwise inform them ASAP and allow them to move forward in whatever way they see fit.

  • It’s good to be talking about copyright and plagiarism, but there’s no discussion of what the remix culture is and why some people get this idea that they are “remixing” when they are really just straight up plagiarising. It’s like people who post things to YouTube with a comment “I don’t own this. I’m just sharing it for others, so there’s no copyright violation.” (WRONG!)

    For a clear understanding of copyright and the difference between piracy/plagiarism and the sharing/remixing culture, there is a lot of good information on the http://creativecommons.org/ about actual copyright law in the US, the EU and elsewhere.

    Plagiarising is bad. Sharing and remixing is good. Being a conscientious participant in the artistic and intellectual commons is the best.

  • Macha NightMare

    I’ve had plenty of blog entries, zine articles, etc. lifted in their entirety and posted as someone else’s writing. Usually I’m unaware. Currently I’m dealing with scribd.com about a piece I wrote called “Chants and Enchantment” that they have on their site. That piece has been published in a few print periodicals, shared online, and translated into two other languages, all with my permission. I’m not charging anything for it and am happy to see it read. What pisses me off is that scribd charges something like $9/month for a subscription. I resent their trying to make money off my writing when I have already freely given it away. If anyone’s gonna get a few sous for the writing, it can be me, not scribd.