Plagiarism, Contracts, and You


It was bound to happen sooner or later, and this week, it did: SQLServerPedia got its first complaint about plagiarism.  We were contacted by a well-known author (we’ll call him Author #1) and his publishing firm who had noticed a disturbing similarity between a chapter in their book and a group of SQLServerPedia wiki articles.

As an author struggling to bang out pages for an upcoming book, I know firsthand just how much work is involved in the process.  I can just imagine how elated I’m going to be the first time I see my name in the shelves of a bookstore.  (Unless it’s in the clearance bin, and if it is, I’m going to pick up the books and move them into the full-price section.)  I can also imagine how frustrating it would be to see my work on another site without my permission.  I vowed to the author that I’d get to the bottom of it as soon as possible, and we started our investigation.

We pulled the articles in question off SQLServerPedia and set about digging through our records at Quest Software to find Author #2, the person who’d contributed it.  The wiki’s initial content was populated from a paid product called KnowledgeXpert, which had been written by several contracted authors.  Our first guess was that someone had copied the content from this famous book and passed it off as their own.

What Really Happened

Here’s where things get a little strange:

  • Author #2 wrote the articles for Quest Software.  His contract with Quest allowed him to keep the material for his own use too, and he could use it in seminars and books.
  • Author #2 modified the articles, and contributed them to a book for Author #1.
  • Author #1 noticed the similarity and asked us to take ours down.

From Quest’s perspective, it’s fine: we contracted for the material, and we had the rights to use it in the wiki.  We don’t need to sue anyone, and it’s completely okay that it’s used in the book too.  We applaud anyone who can make a buck off their content as long as the contract is written up to protect everyone.

Things might not be so clear for Author #1 and his publisher, though.  Depending on the publisher’s contract, they may have demanded all-new, all-original works for their book.  I hope for the authors and the publisher that it works out well, but…

You Need to Read Your Contracts

As a blogger or author, whenever you write something for anybody, you need to ask a few basic questions:

  • Who will own this work when I’m done? Do I own it, or does the publisher?  The answer varies from contract to contract – for example, when I write whitepapers for Quest or books for Wiley, they own the content.  Some magazines or web sites, however, will let you continue to own the content.
  • Can I use this work in other places? This is a valid question whether you own the content or not – some publishers, like mine, will allow me to reuse the content as long as I properly attribute it to my book and my publisher.  Some web sites will let you republish your work later, but they want a 90-day exclusive first for their readers.
  • Can I reuse work I’ve written previously? Can you repurpose your blog entries, whitepapers, wiki articles, and so forth for this book or article?

It’s so important to understand the basic rights behind your content.  Here on the blog, I copyright my stuff because it’s how I make my living.  If somebody took my content and charged for a book of it, I’d be pretty pissed off.  However, in my photo stream on Flickr, I license all of my photos under Creative Commons: people can reuse and remix my photos as long as they give me credit, and as long as they license their own work under that same license.  Someone can’t take one of my photos, remix it, and then copyright it.  I do this because if someone wants to use one of my photos in a presentation or a demo, that’s completely fine with me.  I don’t make a living off my photography, and it’s a good thing, or else I’d be living on Ramen Noodles.

You Need to Own the Rights to Your Content

Times are changing in the publishing industry.  Kindles, iPods and Google Books are starting to affect publishers somewhat like Napster and MP3 players affected the recording industry.  Thankfully, there’s not a lot of negative feelings piled up against the book industry, but it’s still a time of flux and change.

Imagine a future where anyone can be their own publisher, and anyone can place their material in for sale on the Kindle for $.99.  I can easily see myself paying $5 for an electronic to-go copy of The Bloggess‘s greatest hits, especially if it included her favorite comments on each entry.  Sometimes the comments are even better than the article, but you don’t want to sift through the hundreds of comments – having her prune the best ones would be worth the price of entry.

That business model only works if you own your own content.

I beat this drum over and over: I emphasize blogging under your own domain name, I emphasize using syndication to gain readers, and now I’m telling you to pay very close attention to the contracts you sign for your content.

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