The internet blurs the lines of ownership for the written word
Readers will have seen WMN coverage of the poet who won a prize using someone else’s work – Martin Hesp has been musing over the debacle and its ramifications.
This newspaper regularly publishes stories that are picked up by the national press – occasionally they're developed and rewritten, but more often simply reproduced word for word.
Is that plagiarism? I only ask because this has happened once again with one of our stories which, somewhat ironically, is about plagiarism.
Most WMN readers will have seen the bizarre and not yet fully explained tale of the poet who won an Exmoor literary prize by submitting a work that was actually written by someone else.
Throughout the week, after we'd broken the story, the tale appeared in several national daily newspapers whose websites have gone berserk – or "viral" to use the proper term – with folk adding their own ten-penneth-worth.
What I didn't quite realise (and really should have known, being a published author) when I first wrote about the debacle is how very angry the poetry community can get over the crime of plagiarism.
Many people I have talked to in connection with the story have used the word "theft" – which is how you could regard the taking of another's work, lock-stock-and-almost-complete-smoking-barrel.
It now seems that the accused poet may have been guilty of the same transgression at least twice before – but I don't want to get into the particular ins and outs of this instance or even the bizarre mitigation which he seems to have embarked upon.
Poets – by their nature – tend to have thin skins. Old newspaper hacks do not – which is maybe just as well given the regularity with which our work is "appropriated" by others.
As I said, several national papers have now picked up on our original poetry debacle story. Two have credited the WMN as being the newspaper which brought the whole thing to light, but one simply made the tale its own using our complete set of quotes and facts.
A couple of years ago when photographer Richard Austin and I broke the exclusive story that the Exmoor Emperor stag had been killed we counted that his pictures and my words appeared in more than 400 newspapers (or their online versions) worldwide – and not one outside these shores paid us a penny.
It was enough to make me wince. But that is all. The difference between me and a poet is that I am paid a salary for what I do and this newspaper uses my stories before any other organ of the media can get hold of the material. And that, in the area of news delivery, is a currency in itself.
Most poets are self-employed and their work has a longevity, which gives their poems the potential for some future value. Moreover, their work is deeply personal.
However, the brief nature of poems (as opposed to, say, novels) – and the fact that they and their creators often lurk in obscurity away from the brightest spotlights – mean such work is easily steal-able, especially in these days when you can cut and paste anything off the internet.
Which brings me to a point which I feel has more ramifications than any other in this whole sorry storm in a teacup.
Until very recently it was a simple fact of life that the person who created something was either owner of their creation, or in receipt of monies for the sale of that creation.
The internet has changed all that. Poets are finding out that their work can be a moveable feast; journalists are used to their words being lifted from websites everyday; musicians find their tunes being sampled and recycled elsewhere; film-makers see their work downloaded.
This newspaper has uncovered a solitary tale of dubious intellectual property transference – but the reality is that an entire world of digital anarchy looms dangerously.
You could even cite the sad tale of HMV this week – there can be no doubt that illegal music downloads have played a part in the demise of high street retail outfits that once sold records, tapes and CDs.
OK, so the problem of illegal downloads is being dealt with and paid-for downloads are starting to become the norm as the music business gets its act together – but the fact still remains that the worldwide web has blurred countless edges when it comes to ownership and remuneration.
An illegal music download or a blatant stealing of someone else's poem offer two obvious examples of the kind of wrongdoing in which the creator suffers. The latter is certainly an isolated case – but I'd argue that the internet has allowed for a widespread smudging of boundaries.
People who create things need to make a living, just like everyone else. If large swathes of them increasingly find their creations have no value because they are deemed to be part of a worldwide web free-for-all, we will all be much, much poorer.