Monday, October 8, 2007

Getting violated

Writing is hard and stealing is easy. Or at least stealing on the web is easy enough for people to scoop up large swatches of other peoples' prose and dump it into Wikipedia. This is called copyright violation, for all you would-be ambulance-chasers out there. And WP occasionally seems to specialize in it.

Not that an ambulance-chaser would get rich in this racket. Suing a nonprofit for swiping a few paragraphs of nondescript prose will not bring millions, or even dimes and quarters, in contingency fees. But the obvious filching still irritates and embarrasses. Long-time WP foe Daniel Brandt made a big stink about it a few months ago, which got five minutes from the mainstream media.

Wikipedia polices itself halfway decently on plagiarism, and even runs a page full of examples unearthed by snooping editors. I once got involved in a minor scuffle on this page. Not for anything I did, but for a silly mix-up on the article about writer Steven Millhauser. This time the plagiarism ran in the opposite direction: a used-book site borrowed a few lines of blurby prose from the article and used them to plug the novelist's work. I helped straighten out the goofiness.

The reason I'm chatting about copyvio is an article I picked up from the wikify list today: Elba, Alabama. The title intrigued me because it seemed to tie Napoleon to Sweet Home You-Know-What. In fact, there was a connection, though tenuous and long-ago-ish. There was also a huge swatch of stolen prose from the town's web site, dumped word-for-word into the article's "History" section.

I did a complete rewrite to eliminate the obvious copyvio. Coincidentally, the section received a more encyclopedic tone, whatever that means, because I cut a lot of gushing about cutesy twists of town legend. The kid (and his mail bag) who got rescued from the flood is still in there, though.

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