Using the Cook’s Source Copyright Infringement Episode for Class Discussions

You may have read about the recent episode of copyright infringement by Cook's Source magazine, in which the magazine's editor, Judith Griggs, justified her actions by asserting that the Web is "public domain," and therefore it is acceptable to reuse published material without permission. Moreover, Griggs claimed that this sort of usage occurs frequently, "especially on college campuses and [in] the workplace."

Here are three entertaining and thought-provoking writers who have commented on this story:

Monica Gaudio wrote the original material that was used without her permission.

Nick Mamatas, the source referred to above, helped spread the word about what happened.

Jonathan Bailey of PlagiarismToday wrote an insightful post about the story and clarified that Griggs' use appeared to be copyright infringement, rather than plagiarism, as most commenters are calling it, because Cook's Source apparently did mention Gaudio's name.

This episode makes for some eyebrow-raising reading on its own (the unauthorized usage is only part of the story), but it also points to several issues that make great discussion topics for the business communication course.

First, how many people actually believe that content on the Internet falls under the legal definition of being in the public domain? According to the U.S. Copyright Office, "A work of authorship is in the 'public domain' if it is no longer under copyright protection or if it failed to meet the requirements for copyright protection. Works in the public domain may be used freely without the permission of the former copyright owner." Have you ever polled your students on their understanding of this?

Second, even if material isn't legally in the public domain, how many people consider that its mere presence on the Internet makes it fair game? This might be called the "If you don't want someone to take it, don't put it online" defense.

Third, looking at the matter of delivering value of any kind via digital means, how many people would steal something in digital format but not steal an equivalent product in a different medium? Music is one of the most commonly discussed products in this regard, of course. How many people who would never dare steal a tangible CD from a music store but not think twice about taking the very same music from an intangible online source?

As a thought experiment, ask your students to think into the future, when the rapidly developing field of three-dimensional printing could mean that a variety of products can be transmitted digitally and reproduced at home using low-cost printers. Say you like some designer dinnerware you saw in a store but don't want to pay the designer's price? Download the specifications file and "print" it yourself using cheap raw materials. Even for those who try to justify making copies of songs, books, and other media products, would they draw the line at reproducing more-tangible "stuff"? What if some day you could make unauthorized copies of furniture or cars?

If you discuss these questions with your students, we'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions.