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Ivor Tossell: Viral

Copyright scandal cooks up online frontier justice Add to ...

Have you heard about Cooks Source magazine, and the mighty justice that was meted out upon it last week? Well, no matter. You have now.

The Internet is capricious about the things it brings to our attention. In this case, the object of its scorn was Cooks Source, a small New England cooking magazine too poor even to afford an apostrophe for its name. It seems that its editor was in the habit of purloining articles from the Web, and had been unpleasant to a victim of her copy-pinching to boot.

When the editor's transgressions came to light last week, an aggrieved online crowd descended on her magazine, not just inundating it with harassment, but making a group effort to expose its other misdeeds. Now, the editor's name and her magazine are international news items.

What a world we live in, when flash mobs can appear to solve the occasional petty misdeed. Certainly, nobody deserves to have their work purloined by a small New England publication. But in the end, the story of Cooks Source might prove to be more of a cautionary tale than a victory for justice.

The first thing to know about the magazine is that it's not Time Warner Inc. Rather, its slogan bills it as "a publication for food lovers in Western New England," a region that lies vaguely to the west of Eastern New England.

With haphazard layout and a column titled "In a Pickle" (it's about pickles), Cooks Source comes from the tradition of small magazines that publish with more gusto than savvy. In a world of homogeneous corporate publications, small magazines are indispensable. (I say this as one who recently picked up and, kind of unexpectedly, loved the latest issue of Goats Across Canada.) But some standards apply to all.

The current trouble began when a young writer named Monica Gaudio was alerted, by a friend, to the fact that a long piece she'd written about the history of apple pie had appeared in Cooks Source. This was news to her. She contacted the magazine's editor, one Judith Griggs, who acknowledged she'd lifted Ms. Gaudio's piece from the Internet, but maintained it was her right to do so.

After some correspondence, Ms. Gaudio asked for an apology and a token donation to the Columbia School of Journalism.

Ms. Griggs ultimately responded with an e-mail that, excerpted, has achieved a quick and unhappy immortality:

"But honestly Monica, the Web is considered 'public domain' and you should be happy we just didn't 'lift' your whole article and put someone else's name on it!" she wrote after offering a sort of non-apology.

"…We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me! I never charge young writers for advice or rewriting poorly written pieces, and have many who write for me... ALWAYS for free!"

Inevitably, this was all posted online. It's always hard to predict what makes the Internet erupt into an outraged frenzy, but this did the trick nicely.

Crowds piled onto the Cooks Source website (which crashed), then onto its Facebook site, which is now drowning under thousands and thousands of unpleasant, frequently bizarre messages, many berating her for copyright infringement.

More pointedly, entrepreneurial bloggers started combing through recent issues of Cooks Source, tracking down several more authors whose works were pinched and raising red flags about some images as well.

The magazine made a few attempts to respond on Facebook, which only came off as even more patronizing and uncomprehending. Satirical accounts and fake Judith Griggses popped up. And the real Griggs's sigh of "but honestly, Monica" became a meme of its own. Her name and reputation had been plucked from obscurity and flayed, not just on Facebook, but in newspapers and websites across the continent.

It's fun to run around in a mob and yell "burn the witch!" But we should keep things in perspective.

First, let's not overlook the colossal irony of a young online crowd getting outraged about copyright infringement. It's all very well to castigate Judith Griggs for being under the mistaken impression that just because something is online it can be taken and repurposed - but that's exactly the assumption that underpins the way most people treat media on the Internet today.

More realistically, what Judith Griggs is truly guilty of is copyright infringement with a terrible attitude. That made her the pantomime villain in a character drama - easy to jeer and boo and ridicule when she walks on stage, easier to forget when she leaves and the 15-minute hate is over. That's what this whole debacle is really about.

It's possible this episode signals that publishers big and small are being put on notice that content theft is unacceptable and will henceforth be vigilantly policed by the eye of the crowds. The plague of small northeastern food magazines copying articles from websites might finally come to an end.

It's more likely that this serves as a reminder that crowds are attracted to drama above all else: drama over principle, drama over consistency, drama over proportion. To revolt against small outrages wherever it's expedient, to laugh at the failings of silly villains where they're available. If this is the future of crowd justice, we're all in a pickle.

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