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Susan Ito trying to do it all: reading writing mothering spousing daughtering working living

Thursday, January 19, 2006

Is it a ripoff, or is it flattery?

A friend of mine emailed me yesterday to say she'd read one of my stories online, which she found when Googling for this blog. Normally, I'd be happy to hear this news, but this particular story, originally published in the Bellevue Literary Review, was not online as far as I knew. So I googled myself along with the story title and found this.

On one hand, I felt flattered and glad that a major university is using my story for a class in the Medical Humanities. On the other hand I felt kind of ripped off. Why didn't anyone notify me that they were going to do this? What about copyright? Electronic rights? I gave the Bellevue Literary Review first-time rights and then they reverted to me. So now anyone can use them?

I've been on the other side, too. I photocopy stories from anthologies and use them to teach my classes. I read the copyright guidelines which says I can use a short story, once, in the limited field of my classroom. But what about online rights?

I admit to feel a little "once bitten, twice shy" about this whole thing. When Amazon first came up with its "Search Inside the Book" function, I searched for myself and found, to my horror, one of my stories excerpted in a book called Families In Later Life: Connections and Transitions. Again, thanks for the flattery, but that editor totally ripped me off. I found over a dozen references to my story throughout that book as well.

Once, about four years ago, I picked up a copy of a literary magazine in a Borders bookstore and started flipping through it idly. There was a story of mine! I couldn't believe it. When I contacted them, they stuttered that they had "forgotten" to send me an acceptance letter (and a contract). AGHHHH!!

The first time was the worst, though. It was over fifteen years ago, and the Internet was new. I joined an online writers' group on Compuserve. Naively, we posted our work and shared feedback. A few months later, one of the other members of the online group emailed me and said, "I have something to show you." One of the
other members, a woman, had proudly sent him a copy of her first published book (published by MIT, where she was a professor!) - which included one of my poems that I'd posted on Compuserve, with just one word changed. I was stunned. Ironically, the poem was called "Missing Children" and was about kidnapped and "disappeared" children in Latin America. And here my own poem had gone kidnapped.

I fretted over it for months. I wrote to her. I wrote to MIT. I had written that poem in a workshop in my MFA program, and I had everything from my first pencilled drafts to many versions scribbled on by my professor and classmates. No response. The man who had originally sent me the book warned me that he thought she was suicidal (her own mother had committed suicide) and that if she were "outed" as a plagiarist, it might send her over the edge. I declined to follow up, but many years later, re-published the poem (with my own name!) with Poets Against the War. That felt better, and like I had taken it back and given it an appropriate home.

(oddly, I have never been able to find any reference to My Plagiarist after 1994, when she gave a reading of the book including my poem - did she read my poem out loud? - and wonder if she really is still alive)

These are the times that I think I really need an agent. Miss Snark, where are you?


Blogger melanie said...

That's crazy! I can't believe that anthology never notified you. As for the online thing, I know that instead of distribuing hard copies, profs are scanning and making pdf's available via a campus link/site, so would that still be considered the realm of the classroom?

But the "Families in Later Life" editor should be slapped on both hands, and in the face. What has your lawyer said? (Should we writers have counsel on hand? seems like it!)

I'm glad you reclaimed your poem.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 2:33:00 PM

Blogger C(h)ristine said...

Ohmygoodness! I would say it's time to get a lawyer to advise you on such matters.

Or email Dr. Sue? Given how little I've published, I don't have any first hand experience with this (except the few times I heard my story was being taught in university classes but my story wasn't ONLINE), but it smells bad, real bad like two month old milk baaaad.

Thursday, January 19, 2006 3:11:00 PM

Blogger Susan said...

Dr. Sue had this to say on Readerville this morning. So if professors are using your story, Christine, make sure to mention it among your credentials:

Susan, I can certainly understand your being upset about this, and the importance of addressing it with them. OTOH, what an honor, though one you didn't apply for and they didn't bother asking you for permission to bestow. It's a very powerful story, and will doubtless influence many students. While you are trying to get justice, I would also put it on your cover-letter credentials--my story was not only published in BLR but chosen by Georgetown U. as a teaching tool, etc. (But at the very least make them fix the typos!)

Thursday, January 19, 2006 3:27:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Susan--

You should definitely write to the Georgetown prof., who, interestingly, makes claim to copyright for her own materials. She also says, "All other copyright requests are currently pending and if permission is not granted, substitute material will be used." I wonder when she posted that. Most colleges and universities have rights clearance centers/officers. If this were a xerox in a reader you would be given royalties.

I would drop her a line saying you will grant permission if she will only ask!


Thursday, January 19, 2006 6:05:00 PM

Blogger C(h)ristine said...

Dr. Sue is so wise. Thank goodness she exists!

Thursday, January 19, 2006 8:15:00 PM

Blogger Libby said...

Whenever I use stories, etc., in classes I do just make copies; I don't put them online. If I were to put them online, my understanding is that I'd have to put them in secure locations on the web where only my students could access them. So yes, it's an honor, but one that needs to be acknowledged properly.

The anthologies and the literary magazines, on the other hand, are being completely unprofessional if they use your material without acknowledgement (or payment). That's called theft.

I think Dr. Sue's right, too!

Friday, January 20, 2006 3:30:00 AM

Blogger Susan said...

Libby and Rosemary, thank you so much. I really value your professional opinion(s). I didn't understand the difference between putting online stories in "secure locations" vs putting them on the web. I have to admit that I don't mind the "exposure," but I wouldn't mind even the tiniest bit of royalties, either. And yes: hooray for Dr. Sue!

Friday, January 20, 2006 9:41:00 AM

Anonymous anne said...

I just want to reinforce the other comments here. As a professor, I can say I was outraged to see that another professor had posted clearly copyrighted material by a living author on the web for all to see. Universities have become very wary of reproducing copyrighted material, and I have had to jump through many hoops to copy or scan materials for my students (and I teach 19th-century literature). You should definitely contact the professor and probably the dean's office at Georgetown to make sure this doesn't happen to other authors as well.

Friday, January 20, 2006 11:25:00 AM

Blogger Masha said...

i just checked in and am stunned by this. I tend to be way too trusting I fear. Great comments and advice here. A warning for everyone. I was once told by a prof friend, btw, that part of my work had been excerpted in some anthology, but my name was listed as "marsha" hamilton sted masha. I never bothered to try to find it... but your story is enfuriating.

Friday, January 20, 2006 3:23:00 PM

Anonymous wendy said...

Susan, when I wrote for Tikkun, about 30 essays I got paid a total of 150 dollars. For the first essay. I was freelancing, and so was surprised when a google search and even more another engine had most of my stories for sale. I even, idiot, bought a few since I had long lost them.

I forget the exact title Quest search comes close, but I liked having my articles saved even though someone with no real rights was making money on them.

I said nothing. Then recently I wanted to print out and show someone one of my favorite essays and ... they were all gone. So that's oddly when I got indignant and said to the editor in question that he never had the rights to my hard work, but I allowed it out of laziness. And bec. I liked having them available since I move so much. I publically posted in his website and now he won't talk to me. Can't win for losing, huh?

I think I would feel mostly unhappy about NOT KNOWING both for you and Masha. Since we don't make much money from our stories, we at least should be notified, doncha think? As for the poet theif, I too would leave her alone and publish it under my name as you did. I think some plagiarists are sick, but I've written nothing that anyone could plagiarize, love Wendy

Monday, February 06, 2006 12:29:00 AM


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