The Copyright Bubble

by Adam on February 28, 2013

As a cookbook publisher (or perhaps more accurately, a recipe content publisher) there are so many pressures that our business model faces. From the free online content, to self-publishing, to the rise of cheap ebooks and the pressure that puts on existing print prices, there are plenty of problems our industry faces that need to be dealt with. One rather insidious issue, which can take many forms, is that of copyright infringement. I’ve written about this issue in the past, more so from the point of view of what you can to prevent or combat it if you are a victim, but I think it’s worth revisiting.

As an aside, it’s rather ironic that we live in a digital ecosystem where content is so undervalued, but has so much social value. Every second, content is being created across multiple channels, by millions of internet users, and yet consumers have no interest in paying anything for that access. Perhaps it’s because there’s so much of it that we value it so cheaply (or not at all). But, in an increasingly content-centric digital economy, the issue of copyright and who owns what is becoming both harder and more important than ever to protect.

In recipe writing, this is brought into starkest focus, most specifically because recipes themselves are not copyrightable. From the point of view of the Copyright Office, a list of ingredients and directions is in no way creatively oriented and cannot be protected. That’s not to say that when you add headnotes and other creative flourishes, these can’t be protected under copyright, because they can. But, is that really what makes a recipe? Some would argue it is, but at the end of the day, if you are just interested in cooking, it’s the ingredients and steps that are what you need.

More and more, companies of rather dubious reputation are taking recipes from online sources, whether bloggers, websites or elsewhere and using those to drive traffic around their own content endeavors. Much of the time, the goal is to drive traffic, and vis-a-vis that, ad revenue. There are some other companies that are aggregating recipe data and using it to build businesses, but I’m talking about black-box companies that are doing this for more nefarious purposes, to make a quick buck, etc. And I think it’s only a matter of time before we see widespread infringement going on with recipes from published books (it sounds nonsensical to call it infringement because it isn’t, since recipes aren’t protected).

So why is this important? For two reasons, depending on which side you sit. For content creators, copyright infringement can have a meaningful impact on their brand and ability to create content, especially if they are creating content to make money (what a novel idea these days!). And, for consumers, copyright infringement causes issues of credibility, in terms of knowing where content comes from and who authored it.

If you create content, be sure to take steps to protect yourself, including:

  • Clearly defining your content usage practices and policies on your About page
  • Setting up Google Alerts for your site and your brand to monitor for infringement
  • Educating yourself about issues around defending copyright (see the linked post above for more information on that)
  • Watermarking photography, where appropriate, so that it is not easily transferable
  • Being diligent in pursuing copyright infringement issues whenever they come up

As content consumers, we also need to be proactive in identifying good content and knowing where it comes from. You can usually spot a website that steals content from a long way off, but here’s some signs that you should watch out for:

  • Limited or no information on the About page
  • Inconsistent tone or voice within posts
  • A lot of content being posted on the same day
  • Poor writing content on posts that are created by the copyright infringer

More so than any other issues we may face as a content society going forward, the issue of authorship and creative ownership is going to become increasingly thorny as more people come online. Knowing where content is sourced from, and how to protect yourself from issues of infringement is going to be just as important as knowing how to create good content going forward.

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