Puking Content, Plagiarism and Too Much Free

I’m sure many of you have thought something along the lines of, “My gosh, there’s a lot of misinformation on the internet.” And you would be right.

I don’t know about you, but I feel like it’s too easy to get sucked into providing editorial on bad information to set the record straight. Of course, I’m speaking in generic terms here, but this is one of the reasons why a lot of people “puke content.” The more content that gets written about a particular subject, the more saturated the topic gets, the harder it is to discover the truth. Ultimately, this results in “louder” or “more forceful” content and angry emotions.

And that’s how internet trolls are born.

Sometimes I feel that professionals are “too” scared to set the record straight partially because they know the trap exists, but also because internet content is “stored.” Not every piece of internet content has a date stamp, so even if you provide content that corrects an error, there’s no way to keep track of “when” something was said. (Also, a lot of internet rumors start based on outdated content. So just because something has a date — even in the URL — it doesn’t necessarily mean that someone reads that content.) Unfortunately, silence isn’t always golden.

If you look at the trend of “too much content,” the reason why that’s a problem is not because of what you, yourself, are doing. It’s an aggregate trend that occurs because many professionals or amateurs like yourself are all doing the same thing at the same time.

There are a two other “trends” that concern me right now, too. I feel these are getting lost in the shuffle.

1. Too Much “Free” – My blog is a free, watered-down sample of some of my knowledge. I often cover extremely generic topics that are related to what I do, but I save the more “crunchy” bits for paid work or my day job. Why? Because this knowledge is what I get paid for. The free sample entices people to see what I’m about, without ramming self-promotion down someone’s throat.

I made the mistake of believing that my experiences were a good conversation starter to talk about my own fiction writing. Oh sure, I’d having interesting discussions with people about what I do – but in every case, no one offered to pay me or talk about my fiction writing. When they did, it was an “afterthought.” No one cared about my work, they cared about getting my knowledge for free.

Think about it this way: If everyone has a contest for a free book give-a-way, then that contest becomes the norm. It becomes “expected” for an author to provide that contest for a free book. If piracy and free content is left unchecked, then the reader (or consumer) expects things that normally have value to be “free.” Same goes for accessibility, which in a way, is “free” access; if you’re always online, people “expect” you to be there and answer your email immediately. For me, it was something along the lines of, “Well, Monica is always there to answer my questions. So I can ask her more questions, can’t I?”

Too much free devalues what a work or experience is worth; not enough free doesn’t allow readers (or consumers) to try before they buy. I believe that not enough people are concerned with giving things away for free (or taking them) as a whole. Just like the trend of puking content is a problem, so is “too much free.”

2. Plagiarizing “Free” Content – I have heard of several cases where writers are taking both non-fiction content (from Wikipedia and related sources) or fiction published online and offering it as paid work. One “author” took online published stories, published them as their own, and offered recommendations for themselves using fake sock puppet or alias accounts. Another, all-too-common practice is to copy/paste reference material from Wikipedia or other sources online and use it in articles, non-fiction or other published works. Recently, I heard of a fan offering free material under Creative Commons and a publisher picked it up, re-tooled it and offered it as a paid product.

While I believe that this is heinous for several reasons, this type of behavior originates from “too much free.” After all, if content is posted online, who really owns it? The person that created the content in the first place? The website that it’s located on?

The word “entitlement” comes into play here for two reasons: one, people expect content to be free for them and two, once they receive that content, they can simply do whatever they want with it and not expect some sort of recourse. They don’t seem to see the “aggregate” of thousands of other people believing the same way they do; they see it as “Well, it’s just me…what’s the harm?”

Note that popularity has more to do with the expectations of what should be free than the quality. YouTube! is a great example of this, because it continues to lose millions of dollars. (1) The moral to this story is that conventional wisdom still holds: There is no such thing as a free lunch.

One person plagiarizes and it effects the original author, publisher and the writer. A million people plagiarize and all of a sudden multiple businesses start going under because they can’t afford the lawsuits, damage to their reputation, etc. not to mention the loss of sales.

Same thing with piracy. One person “takes” an image from an artist that’s normally offered on commission, and that artist is out the amount they charge. Add several people to that equation and now the artist is out more than just money lost from those taken images; he’s unable to “sell” artwork to new, more viable customers because people just simply take from him.

These questions are currently being explored more in depth through changes in copyright and internet law. I believe that these changes won’t be received well because it’s a little like putting a genie back into the bottle, which is why education about the negative effects is really important. Just like piracy and plagiarism is “achieved” on a one-on-one basis, people need to remove their blinders about the negative effects this type of behavior causes. After all, you wouldn’t expect a doctor to provide care for you for free — why would you demand an artist or writer do the same?

Regardless, these trends are affecting not only what I read and write online, but how I pursue my career objectives and what I recommend other people to write as well.

9 Responses to Puking Content, Plagiarism and Too Much Free
  1. Steven Saus

    You bring up some good points about respecting creators here.

    Personally, I’m trying to walk inbetween your point here and what Doctorow (among others) espouses. Because of the free (cc) content that Doctorow, Stross, and Watts have put online, I’ve bought (several) of their regular works. It’s similar to how I’ve bought works from the authors at GenCon after hearing them read bits of it. In all of those cases, I have a sense of a “connection” to the author because of those things.

    What seems to be different in your case was that you used your nonfiction expertise (even if it was *about* fiction), and that did not convert into fiction sales. Right? It’s possible that (to lapse into economic-ese) that they are not substitutes. In other words, writing here *about* writing might convert into writing for pay for “The Writer”, “Poets & Writers”, and the like – but not into fiction.

    There is some content on my website *is* free, intentionally, because I don’t think there’s much of a market for it. It’s older works that have been up forever, or drabbles. (The few places that take drabbles – e.g. the Drabblecast – doesn’t care if it’s a reprint or not.) [1]

    My longer work, however, goes to the marketplace – and then I announce that in the same venues that I put my “free” work. I *know* there have been a few self-reported conversions there.

    Depending on the Creative Commons license, the publisher you mention above could have committed a crime. CC licensed does not equal public domain.

    [1] It’s worth noting that I’m following one of the many Laws of Scalzi here. I write the drabbles and blog because I WANT to, and share them because I would be anyway – not explicitly as a marketing tool.

    • Monica Valentinelli

      Well, unfortunately regardless of what anyone’s intent is to post content online, the fact that it is posted for the entire world to see has consequences whether you realize it or not.

      The thing with Doctorow and authors like Scalzi, is that they are known authors who are giving away a free sample (e.g. a story in a particular format) of their work. When you have an established brand, that makes an impact on what decisions you make about your online marketing and your ability to monetize those free samples. Doctorow, Scalzi and other authors like David Wellington have been known to “make it” online, but that is the exception rather than the rule. The more authors that jump online and provide works for free; the harder it will be to stand out from the crowd and the more time-consuming (e.g. loss of money and time spent on writing) it will be. There are very specific reasons why authors can “make it ” online, and that has to do with timing and how the technology works. Of course, it helps to have a good product, too.

      Creative Commons allows you to provide some rights to others through its interface. Without a CC stamp, works are still protected under copyright law because they are considered “published.” For example, some publishers will not accept an internet published story on your own blog because that is considered by some to be first printing. Unfortunately, there is a lot of confusion over CC and copyright; the law is pretty complicated and it continues to evolve because it hasn’t caught up to the technology. And yes, I am aware that the plagiarism resulted in a “crime.” With the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), however, only the content owner can make that claim for a takedown notice. Even more confusing is whether or not it’s acceptable to link “to” that illegal content.

      In my case, networking was the goal for those conversations, not fiction sales. I enjoy helping others and paying it forward; but it’s not just fiction sales I lost. It’s time away from my writing and my work. I’m not the only professional to mention this; it’s a bit like asking an established author how to get published but never reading their books. That happens more often than you might think. There were other things that affected my ability to post stories and other things online that I won’t get into here. That doesn’t mean I “won’t ever” do it, it just means I have to be more selective about when I do.

      The point I’m trying to make here, is that intent doesn’t matter when it comes to posting things online. Plagiarism, the devaluation of paid content, piracy…all these things are trends that happen as a result of multiple authors, creators, businesses giving away too much for free in the hopes of getting conversion. (e.g. a visitor to spend money). Free samples are an entirely different story, however, because the sample is a viable business option for many professionals.

  2. Steven Saus

    Thanks for taking the time to respond! Since we’re talking about time, please don’t feel compelled to answer all of this – I really do understand time crunches all too well. After all, there’s a lot of stuff in this conversation, and much of it is pretty crunchy. Forgive me if I economics-geek out a bit. Also, I try to keep my examples consistent; my universe does not simply exist of Doctorow and Scalzi. 🙂

    The bit about conversions (free stuff/advice you generated taking away time from paid work) makes perfect sense and actually falls right in line with comments I’ve personally heard Scalzi make; that is: he blogs because he wants to blog, not as a marketing tool. He also does NOT recommend putting the stuff you want to sell online for all the reasons you mention above, and readily points himself out as an exception. (from comments at Millenicon 2009)

    Doctorow, if I remember correctly, was not a well-known author when he started putting entire works online under CC licenses. Part of his fame (and people’s exposure to his work) was directly due to putting stuff online. Also, I’m more likely to buy something of yours because I’ve met you, but I’m even MORE likely to do so once I’ve already read something you’ve written and enjoyed it. That’s what got me started reading (and buying) Doctorow’s work. I read _Down & Out In the Magic Kingdom_ for free, and have since bought three more copies of it as gifts and bought several of his later books for myself.

    Boingboing has repeatedly highlighted studies showing that, at least for the moment, online content boosts sales in books and music for midlist and below artists. (That’s an oversimplification, of course, but generally has held true for several years now.)

    Don’t forget that personal relationship thing as well; for example, I pay (donate) for Escape Artist’s podcasts largely because of the feeling of relationship with the hosts.

    There’s two problems you hit on with putting free things online: search & value.

    Search: There is a lot of content on the web. And as you rightly point out, a lot of it is crap. That’s where the magazines (web and print) and books with editorial control come in to help narrow that “quality” thing down. I know I’m much more likely to read something of quality from Apex, Analog, or Asimov’s than the website some person I’ve never heard. Additionally, trusted networks will help with this as well. A recommendation from someone who has pointed me to various other good content (even someone I’ve barely or never met like Doctorow and Scalzi) will do a lot to sway my opinion and purchasing dollars.

    Devaluation: This is somewhat related to the search problem. If we treat all works as perfect substitutes, you’re exactly right. But that’s simply not the case with creative works. One book/magazine/movie/song is not perfectly equivalent to any other. You may still see devaluation, but it won’t all go to zero. If someone wants to read your work (or a particular author’s), the availability of my older stuff isn’t going to make a difference in their purchase. And if it *would*, you’d still have problems in any marketplace without a price floor.

    It also occurred to me as I finished writing this that it might seem like I’m saying that all works SHOULD be free, and I disagree with that. That sense of entitlement is rather annoying.

    I hope that makes more sense!

    • Monica Valentinelli

      Actually, Steven…that’s precisely my point. When Doctorow offered his works online for free, he was one of the first to do it. Coupled with the quality he provided, that is “why” he was successful.

      Again, that is the exception rather than the rule. Being online doesn’t necessarily drive more sales; depends on a number of complex factors including who your readers are.

  3. [...] discusses “too much free” and the tendency to “puke content” on the interwebs. (... bookwyrmknits.wordpress.com/2009/12/04/link-love
  4. [...] There is a big backlash against free happening in the literary community. Some people think once you sta... comingalive.wordpress.com/2010/06/04/piracy-and-free
  5. Emmanel

    I am thinking about putting one of my songs on YouTube I am so glad I read this before I did that. I was going to put the full song on there just

    to see what kind of response I got, but after reading this I’m not sure if I’m ready to do that. I am very aware of the fact that people can steal my work. Do you have any advice how I should proceed it would really help me alot . Should I just put a verse and hook on there or just wait till the industry crack down on piracy and plagiarism more effectively. I am the copyright owner of the song and it’s a very good song that did take time and effort to create should I give the Internet a free sample or the whole song

    • Monica Valentinelli

      Hi Emmanuel, you might want to check out a legitimate music distributor like http://www.tunecore.com/. If you’re serious about offering your work for free, I know that MySpace has some built-in tools for that that make it pretty difficult to pirate the music. Also, if you’re offering the music for free it’s technically not pirating since you’re making it available to everyone. Another option for you would be to set your music to a YouTube! video and go that route to publicize it.

      Here’s some questions to ask yourself: What do I want to do with my music? Do I want to make money on this song? Do I want to use this song as a free sample and make money off of other songs?

      Hope that helps! Good luck!

Monica Valentinelli is a writer, editor, and game developer. Her portfolio includes stories, games, comics, essays, and pop culture books.

In addition to her own worlds, she has worked on a number of different properties including Firefly, Vampire: the Masquerade, Shadowrun, Hunter: the Vigil, Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn, and Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

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