Is the Internet Public Domain?

Picture by MikeBlogs at and used under a creative commons attribution license.

Simple answer. No!

But why would anyone need to ask that question? The Internet has recently been exploding with outrage at Cooks Source Magazine. From what I’ve been able to determine, Cooks Source is one of those free magazines you see available around town. They’re all over the place, and lots of people don’t pay them any mind at all. Maybe Cooks Source is even available where you live. You might have read it in passing. Apparently, they have some explaining to do about the way they locate and publish articles. Specifically, there is some indication that they may have been copying articles from other sources for years, because they believed that anything on the Internet was considered the public domain. They’ve since apologized (although it reads more like they’re sorry that they made everyone angry).

Wow. I’m not going to rehash the issue, it’s been covered by far better journalists like those at NPR, The Washington Post, and blogger Edward Champion. But it raises an interesting issue. In an age where the Internet is becoming huge medium for publishing, from professional writers to students and amateur bloggers like myself, how do we control our copyrighted material and what’s the difference between copyright and that Creative Commons thing you see at the bottom of my page?

The sad truth is that with the prevalence of the Internet, it’s going to be difficult to find out if someone is stealing your work without trolling the Internet and print media looking for your work. Monica Gaudio, the author who first discovered the Cooks Source practice of copyright infringement only found out her article had been stolen because a friend saw it in the magazine. Many others whose work was also stolen only discovered it because the story got picked up by major media, and went to see if their work was among the stolen works. You may notice that I’m using the word stolen and not plagiarized here. In various online discussions, I’m seeing that blogs and media are accusing the magazine of plagiarizing. At least in the case of Monica Gaudio, that is not what they did. She was given credit for her work, they didn’t claim it as their own. However, they used it in a revenue-generating magazine without her permission or compensation, which is copyright infringement (or theft).

So what can we do to prevent this issue with our own work? Not a lot unfortunately. You can keep an eye out for your own work online. Occasionally type a sentence or two into a search engine to see if it locates your writing somewhere you weren’t expecting to find it. And know your rights.

Copyright today is implicit. Much has been made in the last few days about the fact that stolen articles had clear copyrights displayed on the page. It is important for bloggers and other authors to know that this is no longer necessary. Since March 1, 1989 copyright notice is not required for a copyright to exist. That’s good to know, because a lot of blogs don’t carry that copyright notice, but still contain original work. If you find that someone has violated your copyright, contact them regarding the infringement, and consider what you will want to do if you have to pursue the issue. In the case of a blog, find a way to report them. Most blogging platforms have ways to report blogs that copy wholesale from another site and will take those sites down if they determine that the complaint is valid. Get in touch with a lawyer if you need to because copyright law is messy.

What is that Creative Commons thing down below? Does it mean the Thirty-something Grad has renounced her copyright?

Answer: No, not at all. The Creative Commons license is a way of letting people know which of my rights I’m willingly giving up. I actually use the most restrictive of the CC licenses on my blog. The license I use states that you may download and distribute my work as long as you give me credit for it and the use is non-commercial. You may not make derivative works, or use my work for commercial ventures (such as publication in a revenue generating magazine). This blog is a means of communicating with friends and family, but there is also some scholarship involved. I have a research journal associated with one of my courses here, and I discuss issues regarding my career path and development, which I may want to have financial control over at some point. There are other much less restrictive versions of the Creative Commons license, and in the future, I can always reevaluate and change the license to something less restrictive.

Copyright is a murky business. The average layperson doesn’t understand how it works, or what their own rights are, let alone the rights of others. That’s not an excuse to violate someone’s copyright and steal their work, so it’s important to do your best to ensure any use of someone else’s work is legal. When in doubt, contact the copyright holder and get permission. You wouldn’t want someone stealing your work, so do your best to ensure that you aren’t stealing someone else’s.



Filed under Library Issues

2 responses to “Is the Internet Public Domain?

  1. Nice work – glad you enjoy the image for which I have granted ‘permission in advance’. And thanks for taking the trouble to drop a link on my flickr photo – appreciated.

    Unlike yourself, I have set my default license to the most open cc:by and over the last few years it has paid substantial dividends. Search google for my surname + creative commons for some background.


  2. Pingback: Welcome to the Public Domain « Diary of a Thirty-Something Grad Student

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