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January 02, 2006

Keeping it Legal

Posted in: Miscellaneous Blog Tips

This post was submitted by Stephanie Patag from Beyond Adobo, Asian Cuisine - The Asian Food Blog and Stefoodie.net.

Recently, two of my fellow food bloggers were plagiarized. In response, some of us decided to launch a protest blogging event. While preparing for the launch, it hit us just how much plagiarism goes on all the time. Sometimes it’s because people are simply unaware of what’s legal and what’s not. Sometimes they’re aware of what’s legal but just don’t care or take an attitude that “everyone else is doing it“. Sometimes it’s because the information that’s out there is ambiguous and confusing, which is to be expected since some of the rules/laws regarding fair use, linking (controversial to this day), etc. are still being written. Right now, though, if you stick to some basic rules, you should be fine.

Consider this before you read on: most of the laws/rules I outline here are applicable to US residents only. Because blogging is a worldwide phenomenon, there are not only different countries’ laws to consider, there are cultural and individual differences as well, hence variations on what’s deemed acceptable behavior on the ‘net and what’s not.

Also, while a large percentage of blogs began as nothing more than online-diaries of the “I saw my boyfriend today” variety, there are those that have moved away from that model and towards more professional forms of blogging/online journalism. As the trend continues to grow it brings privileges and responsibilities that have always been associated with traditional media. If we want to be responsible bloggers, we need to follow a set of standards. At the very least, an understanding of copyright, fair use, and attribution would be helpful.

What is a copyright? It is the RIGHT of the creator of content (image, text, etc.) to CONTROL how his/her work is reproduced. Whoever owns the brain from which the idea came also owns the right to say how that idea — whether in the form of a book, article, pictures or other types of media — will be disseminated (or not). If you want to understand the details of US copyright law (and if you’re into heavy reading), click here: the Copyright Law of the United States of America and Related Laws Contained in Title 17 of the United States Code. If a crash course is more your style, here’s one from the University of Texas.

Here, Brad Templeton explains the 10 — actually 11 as he edited the page — big myths about copyright, IMO a must-read for every Internet user, blogger or not. Brad is the Chairman of the EFF (Electronic Frontier Foundation), and here’s the link to their Bloggers’ FAQ page on Intellectual Property.

Basic Terminology you need to understand, from the University of Alabama.

When using content from a website or other source (book, magazine, etc.), assume that you need to get permission. Why? Because you did not write the text and/or you did not take the picture. It’s someone else’s intellectual property. Permission to use it is usually granted several ways:

  • It’s right there on the page, a statement basically telling you that you can use whatever you want from that page and you won’t get into trouble.
  • Or it may tell you that you can use the image/text/whatever but only for non-commercial purposes (you are not going to put it on a commercial site where you hope to make a profit).
  • Or you have to contact the person who took the photograph and ask permission to use the image. As for text, you can quote snippets, but not whole blocks of text. Of course, that too is subject to interpretation. As a general guideline, fair use constitutes action that won’t affect the VALUE of the work, e.g., you put recipes from a book and now people won’t buy it because they get free access to the information just by accessing your site. The best thing to do is to refer your readers to the book or the link where they can read the material for themselves.
  • You can use the images/text/whatever but you have to pay a fee to do so.

There may be other ways not listed here, but those are the most common ones.

The other important rule that covers just about everything else is this: if you’re in doubt, ask. Given all the technology available to us these days, communication should not be a problem, so “I tried to reach you but couldn’t” is no longer a valid excuse. It could be a simple e-mail or phone call asking the copyright owner for permission. In cases where you need to get information in writing, Cetus.org provides a model here for you to use.

My observation is that most food bloggers are sticklers for following the law. Here’s the copyright law as it pertains to recipes:

Mere listings of ingredients as in recipes, formulas, compounds or prescriptions are not subject to copyright protection. However, where a recipe or formula is accompanied by substantial literary expression in the form of an explanation or directions, or when there is a combination of recipes, as in a cookbook, there may be a basis for copyright protection.

[Note that I copied a block of text there, but it’s legal for me to do that because this information (a US government publication) is in the public domain.]

In other words, if you have to post a recipe on your blog, you can use the exact ingredients from the original, but at least try to paraphrase the instructions. (This again, is a muddy area. There are those who interpret this — along with the fair use rules — to mean that as long as you’re only blogging one or two recipes, you’re not really affecting the value of the book.) IntelPropLaw has a rather lengthy article with more detail on writing/rewriting recipes.

If you’ve gotten to this point and are still not suffering from information overload, here’s more suggested reading for you:

Lastly, one thing you should not forget is attribution. Here it is explained in the simplest terms possible, with a cute little presentation designed for kids.


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