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.