Just think of all the photos you see posted to Facebook that are already three generations removed from a source that may or may not be the original. How many jokes get passed around with complete disregard to the author?
It’s exactly this sort of question being raised by blogger Jen Yates, most widely known as the mind behind CakeWrecks.com, who in April 2011 posted a clever instructional piece (on her other site Epbot.com) on how to turn a typical wire clothes hanger into a hanger specifically for flip-flops (and other lightweight shoes).
The idea is simple, uncomplicated and practical, so it’s no shock — especially given her sizable built-in audience — that the hanger images started spreading around the Internet like something that spreads around really quickly.
“They’ve been re-pinned on Pinterest thousands of times, so naturally I’ve seen my share of websites re-posting my pics without credit,” writes Jen, “but that’s kind of par for the course with the internet, and usually easily remedied with a polite e-mail.”
Then she found out that Redbook magazine had recently run a piece that included a drawing of hangers that looked remarkably like the photos of the ones she made on Epbot, right down to the side buckles on the flip-flops.
And of course there was no credit given to her. Nor was any credit given to any source material on any item in the article, in spite of the fact that all the items featured on the page could probably be traced back to some source via Pinterest.
Does Redbook just assume all of these ideas came from lowly bloggers who don’t have the audience or clout to protest when their ideas are stolen? They can’t think this content simply appeared out of thin air, so that’s the only conclusion I can come to: that the Redbook staff think they’re free to use our ideas and images just because they’re bigger than us.
She’s probably right. But it’s also worth pointing out that there is a long history of magazine writers — especially those who write about fashion and design — not properly sourcing their inspiration. Instead of saying, “I saw a turquoise dress in store window in Madrid,” at best you would get something like “Turquoise is all the rage in Spain.”
(I once worked for a magazine editor — a very famous one whose name I won’t mention but who some will know just by the mention of this fact — who tried to tell the photo agencies that she didn’t have to credit them on the page because she was already paying such a high price for the images. It didn’t work.)
But just because some writers and editors have been able to get away with ignoring or hiding their sources of inspiration doesn’t mean it’s ethical.
Some of you will remember the 2010 incident in which the editor of a small cooking magazine not only copy/pastes a website’s entire article without giving the author credit, but also told the original writer that the entire Internet is “public domain” (it’s not) and that the author should compensate her for giving the author something she could use in her portfolio.
Back to the Redbook story — Out of sheer coincidence, the uncredited Redbook item could now endanger a credited item about Jen’s hangers in an upcoming issue of
Better Homes & Gardens Good Housekeeping. First, Redbook published first, which could make GH look like it’s following another magazine’s lead. Second, since the Redbook item isn’t credited, it could cause doubt in the GH editor’s mind that Jen really did come up with this notion — or that she should be credited for it.
Since Jen posted about the Redbook issue over the weekend, a number of her readers — including some of her 1.2 million Twitter followers — have essentially taken over the Redbook Facebook page, chastising the magazine, asking for an apology, requesting an explanation, etc.
“I don’t expect anything much to come of this,” writes Jen, adding that, “Obviously nothing can be done about this current issue, but a correction in the next one, along with a source credit and link on their website now, would be a lovely amendment on their part. And in case anyone from Redbook ever reads this, let me just say that while drawing slightly different versions of popular images on Pinterest may get you around the law, it certainly won’t win you any respect from your readers.”
UPDATE: Right around the same time we wrote this, Redbook posted the following on its Facebook page, calling it all an “unfortunate oversight”:
Thank you, everyone, for bringing this to our attention. We did run a version of Jen Yates’ idea in our story without crediting her — it was an unfortunate oversight on our part. We promise you that the mistake wasn’t intentional, and we deeply regret it. We’ll make it right by crediting Jen online, as well as in a future issue, and compensating her, as we do all our contributors. We agree with all of you that it is essential to give credit where credit is due.
UPDATE 2: THE QUICKENING (or UPDATE BOOGALOO): In a new post on Epbot, Jen confirms that Redbook’s executive editor has contacted her by e-mail to confirm what the magazine wrote in the above Facebook comment.
Saying that all she ever wanted was proper credit, Jen is asking Redbook to take any money it’s thinking of giving her and donate it to charity.
I’m more than a little skeptical that this was, as Redbook claims, an “unfortunate oversight.” These sorts of articles — in many magazines, not just Redbook — rarely credit their sources. And nowhere in the letter to Jen does Redbook say it will credit the sources for the other items in the article.
Writes Jen: “I will also ask [the editor] to re-examine the rest of the article in question with thoughts toward crediting other bloggers whose ideas and/or illustrations they may have used. And if they want to get really serious, an article on Pinterest and how it drives traffic to smaller blogs and helps spread ideas would be extra awesome.”