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Black Static


Rainy Day Rant #35

4th Jun, 2009

Author: Peter Tennant

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Back when I first had a computer and discovered the wonders of the internet, after the requisite forty days and forty nights of researching porn sites, like a gazillion other painfully needy and self-absorbed people before me, I gave in to temptation and googled myself (no pun intended).

And after wading through the plethora of tribute sites dedicated to the camp comedian who has the same name as me, the other guy who runs a moth club in Somerset and the one who is mayor of some place in Australia, not to mention the Sir Peter Tennant who did something pretty damned important back during the War, I ended up staring at a screen on which there was, word for word, my review of The Smithsonian Institution by Gore Vidal, originally published in The Third Alternative #23 back in 2000. I knew it was my review because it said so, though I had no memory of telling these people, whoever they were, that they were welcome to post it on their site, but I do have a habit of getting drunk in out of the way watering holes and forcing my reviews on anyone who smiles at me in the wrong way, so I guess it could have happened.

Skip forward a few years and then some, to a period when I was posting the occasional review on the predecessor to this snazzy new website, and informing writers, publishers and anyone else who might be remotely interested so that they could link back to us.

A Digression – in case anyone hasn’t figured it out yet, commercial websites don’t post content because they are altruistic. They do it to draw traffic to the site, to boost their standing on google or alexa, and in the hope that while you’re there you’ll get interested in whatever end product they’re trying to sell (in the case of TTA that would be magazines and books). In the same way, writers and publishers don’t send me books because they think I’m a wonderful person; they do so in the hope that I’ll review the book and say something nice about it that will persuade somebody else to dip their hand in their pocket and buy.

Anyway, I posted a review, informed the author and then, after a week, went back to see if he was doing his bit by crowing about the good review that he’d got and linking back to our site so people could read it, only to find that what he’d actually done was copy and paste almost all of the review into his blog, something like 76 lines out of a total of 78 (he’d omitted a couple that might have been construed as mildly critical).  When I pointed out that he was infringing my copyright by doing this, he told me that he thought it was okay, because he had given credit to the original source, and so I asked him if it would be okay for me to post one of his stories to my blog without so much as a by your leave as long as I was sure to leave his name on it.

I’ve seen this ‘it’s okay, as long as we credit the original source’ nonsense before and since, so let’s take a sledgehammer and smash the bugger right smack, bang between the eyes before we go any further, and hope that unlike most of the horror genre’s bogeymen it won't get right back up again and start chasing us.

As far as I’m aware, copyright applies to reviews just the same as it does to any other form of writing, and that’s regardless of whether it’s published in a magazine, at a website or on the back of a cereal box.  Anyone other than the writer and those he or she has assigned rights to, is allowed what is referred to as ‘fair use’. As far as reviews go, what this means is you can quote passages from them for purposes of illustration, but aside from work that’s published with a ‘creative commons’ label that’s all you’re allowed to do.

Copying and pasting somebody’s work to a website without their permission is not ‘fair use’, regardless of whether you put their name on it or not, and should be a non-starter. It may be common practice online, just as shoplifting is a common practice in supermarkets. It’s not however acceptable practice or a ‘convention of the internet’ any more than it’s acceptable practice or a convention of the retail trade that you can take products from a store without paying as long as you put them in a bag with the shop’s name on.

A Second Digression – ‘fair use’ allows for quotation from reviews, but doesn’t require that the quotes used be representative of the source material. This is a caveat lector situation, and publishers and writers are at liberty to be judicious in what they choose to disclose to the book and magazine buying public (e.g. they can use the one positive line in an otherwise negative review). My copy of The Night Land by William Hope Hodgson has a wholly laudatory back cover blurb lifted from Lovecraft’s famous essay Supernatural Horror in Literature, but unsurprisingly comments like ‘marred by painful verboseness, repetitiousness, artificial and nauseously sticky romantic sentimentality’ and ‘the last quarter of the book drags woefully’ got lost somewhere along the way.

We no longer run book reviews on the website as a matter of course, but we do still carry them in Black Static. Every time an issue mails out, I forward a PDF of the Case Notes section to any publishers (and writers if their addresses are known to me) who have had titles reviewed.  I do so because I think if they've sent us a review copy then it’s only fair that they know what is being said about their product and also, to state the obvious, because we want them to quote from the review in their publicity material and make people aware of Black Static.

I’m not required to do this though. It’s purely voluntary on my part, a courtesy to the people who send us stuff for review, and it’s something that on occasion gets abused. Since Black Static launched, I’ve seen my reviews appear in their entirety on publishers’ websites and writers’ blogs even before the magazine lands on subscribers’ doorsteps. I’ve seen one publisher copy and paste my review to half a dozen message boards. I’ve seen another publisher upload to their site, not just my review of their title, but the whole Case Notes PDF, fourteen pages of Black Static, 10k or more of copyrighted material put into the public domain without permission from either Andy or myself.

What makes all this especially galling, is that it’s being done by publishers and writers, people who should understand exactly how copyright applies and who have greater reason than most to respect and abide by those rules.

In the past I’ve pretty much let this slide, apart from a few requests to people to remove copyrighted material, and it’s still not much of an issue (the majority of publishers and writers do play by the rules), but all the same it’s something that I find niggles me. If your work gets praised then I understand the desire to share that with the world, indeed I do, just as I understand the desire to own the new Bruce Springsteen DVD or have a plasma TV set, but none of those desires is a justification for theft, and to reproduce somebody else’s written work without their permission is a form of theft.

It’s not right, and if you want to be accepted and taken seriously as a writer or publisher then you damned well shouldn’t do it.


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