As a writer, I’ve been warned to carefully protect the work I share in order to ensure it is not stolen. I’ve heard countless stories about work being stolen or improperly accredited but as with many things, I never thought it would happen to me. Unfortunately, it did.
Recently, I got a message from my friend that said, “Congrats on getting this published in print!” A picture of a Fresh U article I wrote months ago published in a newspaper accompanied the message. I was confused but admittedly excited. It’s always been a dream of mine to be published in print and even though it was a small-town newspaper, it still felt like an accomplishment.
As quickly as my excitement presented itself though, it fell away. I heard a voice inside my head say, “They stole this." I hadn’t sent my article to the newspaper and they never asked for my (or Fresh U’s) permission to distribute it. I wasn’t made aware that it was happening until it was already done. I was credited as the author but still, I felt cheated.
Immediately, I messaged Kate Beckman, the founder of Fresh U, asking what the copyright stipulations surrounding the republication of articles were. She confirmed that what happened with my article was illegal. Thankfully, we were able to contact the newspaper and got the article removed from further distribution. They were cooperative, so it was clear that they hadn't taken my article with ill-intent, but I was still disconcerted. Part of me wondered if having my work stolen made me a "real" writer, but another part of me couldn't believe how easily it occurred or how blind people can be to the severity of this issue.
What happened to me and what continues to happen to countless other artists is a problem because being a creator means that you get to choose where you publish your work and who your audience is. I wrote the article that was stolen for Fresh U with the intent that it would not only promote my writing but that it would also bolster Fresh U as a publication because I am invested in the company's mission. Stealing from me also stole from Fresh U.
Secondly, creators put a lot of effort into their crafts. The article that was stolen required that I spend hours interviewing my subject and writing as well as revising, and although I didn't get paid for that time, I had the chance to be since Fresh U allots a monetary bonus to the writer of the article that gets the most views in a two-week period. The newspaper, on the other hand, never intended to compensate me and never will. They actually saved themselves money by not paying one of their own writers to compose an article on the same subject.
What happened to me, though, is admittedly minuscule compared to the theft and mis-accreditation of poet Iain S. Thomas, the author of "I Wrote This For You" (and many other books). He has bits of poems and sometimes entire poems stolen regularly by fans as well as celebrities, which has resulted in multiple fights and legal battles for the poet. I was lucky enough to get to interview Thomas about the issue of having work stolen and gained a lot of valuable insight.
Initially, Thomas wrote his poems anonymously because "it made what [he] was doing more powerful and allowed the work to live without the context of who specifically created it," but he soon realized that it created a "free-for-all" when it came to his work. His most stolen piece is a poem called "The Fur" (embedded below) which is commonly attributed to Kurt Vonnegut.
The worst offenders are those whom Thomas refers to as "Insta-poets."
"There are certain writers who've created large volumes of work very quickly, and if you take their work and you put it next to one of my books, or one or two other prolific poets, you can very, very quickly see that a bunch of it is plagiarized with just enough changed and mixed with top 40 lyrics to create something that legally you could call new."
Combating the extent of this plagiarism would be an exhausting and monumental effort, so Thomas and other legitimate poets typically let it go without a fight, but it still takes a toll. Thomas says that:
"On a personal level, it hurts. It really, really, really hurts. I've had to live through my life to be able to write what I write, I've had to have my experiences and feel what those feel like in order to be able to create what I create. Seeing someone take something from that place, and use it to impress other people, is like seeing someone at a party wearing your soul as a hat."
In addition to the emotional toll of having work stolen, there are very serious financial implications. Thomas genuinely loves sharing his work, but he also loves and needs to support his family:
"My business model is this: I give everything I create away for free in the hope that someone will find it, like it, wonder where it comes from and hopefully, buy one of my books. That model pays for the roof over my family's heads and my daughter's baby food. As soon as someone misattributes something of mine or doesn't credit me, that model falls down flat."
According to Thomas, avoiding these consequences is as easy as "look[ing] at the things you're reading and sharing and every now and again, [checking] to see if it's legitimate." He also emphasizes the importance of calling out instances of lack of attribution and theft.
"Make some noise, because that's the only way it'll stop."
Remember, creators want you to enjoy and share their work as long as you do it fairly. It's true that the Internet makes it incredibly easy to steal or miscredit work without even realizing it, but it's your responsibility to consciously fight against it. Your voice can help preserve the integrity of the work you want to see created and the work you want to create because yes, it can happen to you as it did to me and to Iain S. Thomas.
Lead Image Credit: Bamagal via Unsplash