21 November 2010

Copyright and Cooks Source

It’s been a few weeks since the online masses raised a hue and cry against Cooks Source and its publisher/editor Judith Griggs. In case you weren’t caught in the crossfire—or need a refresher—here’s its Wikipedia entry.

Griggs’ Cooks Source web site is gone. That doesn’t mean her content has disappeared into the ether forever: for now, her final post is preserved in
Google’s cache and either in whole or in part on various web pages such as this one.

I followed, commented and opined about Griggs’ behaviour as well as the brand and reputational damage she hastened. It’s still fresh and the dust has yet to settle (possibly by impending legal actions)—but at the heart of this issue is the simple fact that she ventured into a territory she appears to have little understanding of or respect for.

I look at this matter through various lenses—as a writer and artist, as a publisher, as a professional communicator and as someone with more than a passing familiarity with issues and brand management. The way it unfurled in a few short hours is the stuff case studies are made of.

Let me start by stating one of my simple truths.

Writing and editing (and other communicative skills) are like fresh air or potable water: excruciatingly undervalued.


Because they are ubiquitous. Everyone communicates in one way, shape or form, but when it comes to writing, my favourite illustrative line I fling about like a confetti-tossing wedding guest is: “Eye right good. I talk good. So I is a come you nick 8 ore.”

Get it?

Just because you can string words together it doesn’t mean you communicate effectively or well. It certainly doesn’t mean you are a (professional) communicator.

By extension: just because you change sentences with a blue pencil, turn on tracked changes in Word, or arrange words around pictures and display ads, it doesn’t mean you are an editor.

I’ve read the 206-word excerpt of
Griggs' email to Monica Gaudi, the woman from whom she stole content. Like Cooks Source’s final online missives, there are grammar and spelling errors (differences between American and Canadian spelling and grammar notwithstanding), it meanders like a million year old creek and stands up to the scrutiny of something written by a fast-tracked MBA who’s all suck-up and no tangible experience.

Griggs mentions a couple of interesting terms any legitimate editor should know like the back of her hand: “public domain” and “copyright laws.” She also implies online publishing waves ownership rights. At the time she tapped out that email I’m certain she thought she felt she was on solid ground and believed the web was ripe for picking. I suspect now she’s better educated.

Please note a couple of things. I am not a lawyer. I’m speaking to a Canadian context which is similar to standards and practices in the US (if you live elsewhere, you’ll need to check your national law books). Much of what follows is distilled from various sources, but some excellent sources include
Royal Roads University’s Copyright Information Page, Ostmann and Baker’s The Recipe Writer’s Handbook, Giuseppina D’Agostino’s Healing Fair Dealing? A Comparative Copyright Analysis of Canada’s Fair Dealing to U.K. Fair Dealing and U.S. Fair Use (pdf).

If you think your rights have been infringed upon, I strongly recommend you consult a lawyer who specializes in copyright law.

Copyright is just one kind of intellectual property protected by Canadian law.

Canadian Copyright Act gives people who create literary works (print and electronic), dramatic pieces, musical works, recordings, performance and communication signals (such as TV or radio signals) the right to control how their work is used. Copyright holders have several rights:

  • Reproduction rights include performance and publishing;
  • Economic rights allow for remuneration for the work’s use, and
  • Moral rights which include right of attribution and the right to maintain the work’s integrity (in other words: not allowing alteration, distortion, or mutilation).

Just because someone has created something doesn’t necessarily mean they are the copyright holder (for example, an employer can own the copyright of work done by an employee). It can be transferred in whole or in part to someone else; moral rights can be waived entirely. Currently, Canadian copyright lasts to 50 years beyond the life of a creator. For example if I die today, my pieces will be in copyright until 2060. Copyright can be renewed to ensure the works do not fall into public domain.

The Canadian Copyright Act’s fair dealings provisions lets people use original works without infringing on a copyright holder’s rights for research, critiques and reviews, or to report the news, but they must reference sources. When evaluating fair dealings, several factors come into play, including:

  • How the original work was dealt with;
  • How much of the original work was used;
  • If alternative sources were available;
  • The nature of the original source, and
  • What effect it had on the copyright holder.
  • Public domain
    If something is in public domain, it is free for others to reproduce, perform etc. Basically one of two things happen for a work to be in public domain: either the copyright has expired or the copyright owner has purposely placed it in public domain.

    Please note: This does not mean online documents are necessarily public domain.

    My rule of thumb is unless there is a disclaimer on the web site stating that the works are free to use, I assume the content is bound by copyright rules.

    Copyright as it pertains to recipes
    Hoo boy. Now here’s a topic for you. I’ve heard everything from “a recipe can’t be copyrighted” to “mine mine mine all mine and you can’t touch it without paying me oodles of money” and everything in between. Seriously.

    When it comes to recipes, my current understanding is it’s a combination of copyright law and ethics:

    • An ingredients list cannot be copyrighted.
    • The method’s description can be copyrighted.
    • If a recipe is based on another, and the author wants it to be considered original, there must be a minimum of three significant changes to the original recipe.
    • For recipes that have simply been tweaked, the original author should be acknowledged in a fashion such as “adapted from a recipe by…”
    • Classic or standard recipes such as those for classic mayonnaise or classic shortbread are considered to be in public domain and do not need to be attributed.

    But really, the International Association of Culinary Professionals’ rule is best: when in doubt, give credit.


    I don’t think it fair to assume every small town editor scalps content from unsuspecting writers and then demand the victim pay for editorial services—many live by strong journalistic standards. Many Canadian journalists and editors take the

    Atkinson principles to heart. Unfortunately Griggs has done a lot to damage the reputations of ethical journalists and newspaper editors…which is probably why she was “grilled” (her word, not mine) by a reporter about the situation.

    Do I feel sorry for Griggs?

    Not really.

    She’s a thief. She was rude. Apart from Monica, she’s unrepentant to the others she stole from. She’s a bully who tried to paint herself as a victim…which she was…of her own words…those same words she herself chose and committed to pixels.

    I'm a quill for hire!

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    Joanne at Frutto della Passione said...

    I've been following this too although I haven't commented on it anywhere. The whole thing has had me questioning how I would have handled the situation if it had happened to me. I have wondered if Ms Griggs behaviour was a tactic to scare off the young writer that was stirring up trouble. I have wondered if Ms Griggs has intimidated other young writers or photographers or artists in the past in just the same way. I have wondered if Ms Griggs threw around words like *public domain* and *copyright laws* because they are big scary words for people who don't know what they mean. Haven't we all at one time or another found ourselves fighting Goliath? And haven't we all had to decide if we had the staying power (financial, emotional, etc) to fight to the bitter end? Was she perhaps hoping that one swift blow would be enough to scare Monica Gaudi off once and for all. And if so, doesn't that make Ms Griggs all that more despicable?

    jasmine said...

    Hi Joanne

    You raise interesting points re: intimidation. By acknowledging Gaudi as "a professional" Griggs appears to be applying some sort of moral/professional suasion...but again, it brings to question Griggs' understanding of moral rights. You're now also making me wonder about all the "young writers" she advised...and what sort of advice was given. It just gets murkier...