Save vs. Plagiarism.
April 2, 2011 5:38 PM   Subscribe

Plagiarism! I wrote some articles on my blog, now the ideas are being sold in a book - using specific terms and techniques that make it unmistakable about source or parallel development. No one else has rights to these articles, and no one notified or asked me for permission. What are my options?

I write articles on roleplaying and roleplaying games on my blog. I walked into the game store today, and flipped through a book on gamemastering, which, had two chapters titled after highly specific concepts I've written about ("Flag Framing", "Conflict Webs") detailing the techniques I've written.


1. The articles were on a previous blog, now defunct. They are still available on Thewaybackmachine archives, and a quick google search brings up numerous forum conversations linking my name and the articles. (these are back in 2006).

2. I am not referenced in the chapters or noted as being the originator of those ideas. Way in the back of the book, my internet handle is under the many names of acknowledgements.

3. These articles are not "kinda like" my ideas (which, yeah, roleplaying this stuff happens), they are exactly it- detailing even specific symbols I use for a particular technique.

4. The publisher appears to be in New Zealand and I'm in the US.

I've emailed the publisher trying to find out who I should be talking to and am waiting a response.
posted by yeloson to Media & Arts (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
only a lawyer with skills in IP, copyright, and registration issues can help you here.
posted by jenkinsEar at 5:47 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

IANAL, but you may not have much of a case unless the other author copied your language. Ideas are not by themselves protected from copying. Phrases generally aren't either unless they're a trademark.

But if you can find a whole paragraph lifted from your article, you may have something.
posted by justkevin at 5:56 PM on April 2, 2011 [2 favorites]

The two most important things to understand right now are these:

1. Go get yourself a lawyer. Stat.

2. You cannot copyright ideas. You can copyright creative works. Determining whether what happened here was copying ideas or copying a creative work is something that should be left to the professionals when there's money on the line. See point #1 for more details on that.
posted by toomuchpete at 6:26 PM on April 2, 2011

Response by poster: Ok, so rider to the question:

Anyone know good IP/Copyright lawyers in the Bay Area?
posted by yeloson at 6:38 PM on April 2, 2011

Re the suggestion to get a lawyer: keep in mind that retaining an attorney costs money. It might not be worth it.

I can't opine whether you have a case, but let me ask this: what do you want to have happen here? If you want money damages, yeah, a lawyer might make sense to sue or threaten to sue or find out if you have a viable claim. If you just want more credit - better attribution in a subsequent edition - you might be on the right path already.
posted by J. Wilson at 6:41 PM on April 2, 2011

Best answer: Yeah, here in the Bay you should go to California Lawyers For The Arts, who set up cheap consultations from their office in Fort Mason.

I used their services once for an article rights situation and they were great.
posted by Victorvacendak at 6:42 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: So, in the order of preference of what I want:

1) If it's a small print run, I'd like to simply not have those chapters in future editions. I'm not highly trustful of folks who take before asking in being responsible later. Obviously that's "asking" a big thing, but given that my work was taken without asking me, I don't think it's much.

2) If it's a big print run, where it's not feasible to make those changes, then I'd be asking for money.

Odds are pretty good either way I can't afford a lawyer, but I want an idea on my options first.
posted by yeloson at 6:45 PM on April 2, 2011

Best answer: (hey yeloson, IANYL but I'd recommend saying as little as possible about what you want/don't want etc. until you speak with a lawyer).
posted by Shebear at 6:57 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for the advice.
posted by yeloson at 7:00 PM on April 2, 2011

Getting a lawyer over this is terrible advice. You might as well take a few thousand dollars and burn in the backyard to sees if it makes you feel better. I'm not a lawyer, but based on my experience you are at best going to get someone who will write a very expensive letter on your behalf whicy might result in a really expensive phone call and a polite retort from their lawyers saying the publisher disagrees with your lawyer. Unless there are millions of dollars at stake let it go.
posted by humanfont at 7:13 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

I think a Metafilter member wrote about having a D&D gaming-oriented article (that he wrote as a kid) ripped off by a publisher. If I recall correctly, be handled the resulting dispute himself. Anyone remember that?
posted by jayder at 7:18 PM on April 2, 2011

Did they use your words, with no substantial changes, or your ideas? It will matter.
posted by theora55 at 7:23 PM on April 2, 2011 [1 favorite]

From what you've said this seems like it will largely be an exercise in futility. Plagerism is a moral rather than a legal concept and you cannot copyright an idea. Unless the actual text is lifted wholesale from your writing, I do not think you have a case. If they have failed to acknowledge your writing as a source when paraphrasing, the best likely outcome is the addition of footnotes or a bibliographic entry citing your work.
posted by DarlingBri at 7:26 PM on April 2, 2011

It's probably worth your time to get a consultation.

When it comes to legal representation, there's a serious "haters gonna hate" element to many comments like humanfont's. You'll get folks who have silly, bullshit cases who get angry when the lawyer doesn't land them a million-dollar settlement. Folks who have six DUIs and are mad that their lawyer can't get them sole custody of their kids. There are also bad lawyers.

Not all cases are created equal. I say you should at least check out the consultation because it's entirely possible that what's happening here was copyright and you're just not using the right magic words to describe it.

Then again, who knows -- there's an entire chapter lifted straight out of one or two of your blog posts and this thing is going to be a NYT bestseller. Be prepared to hear that you don't have much of a case, because that might be true.

But one thing you should not do is blow off lawyers as a concept because some people on the internet had a bad experience.
posted by toomuchpete at 7:37 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

Personally, if I were in your position, I'd write a very polite (perhaps certified) letter to the publisher, point out your blog posts on the subject, and ask them if they'd please credit you for the ideas in future editions and offer a correction on their website with a link to your blog. If you don't get a good response, then find their forum and make your case there. And if you they delete it, then make a post on other people's blogs or twitter or some other place where you'll reach their customer's eyeballs. And I would, as much as possible, refrain from yelling "Thief, Thief" and frame it in a way that they should draw their own conclusions. If they indeed ripped you off, it should be fairly obvious.

If the writer isn't the publisher, there's a pretty good chance that the publisher had no idea that this person lifted your ideas.

There's an even better chance that there is absolutely no money to be made here unless you're talking about White Wolf or TSR, so getting a lawyer involved seems silly.

The rpg community is a small, and it should be pretty easy to get heard if you have a legitimate beef. We aren't talking about marvel comics or disney or something here.
posted by empath at 7:57 PM on April 2, 2011 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: There's an even better chance that there is absolutely no money to be made here unless you're talking about White Wolf or TSR, so getting a lawyer involved seems silly.

This is pretty much my likely line of thought in this, but as I said, I want to know what my options are. As I mentioned above, my ideal outcome is my work is removed from their product, period.

From my initial searches, it looks like this product is in many distribution chains, so then comes the question of how many were printed and whether they're sitting on a massive pile of already printed backstock that would basically be continuing to sell (albeit, probably slowly) over the next 10 years, or if they have small run that would make it easy to change things for the second printing.

The primary issue is control over the work I produce.

I've had plenty of cases of having had my work plagiarized on websites, mostly my anti-racism work. That's mostly only taken an email or two to resolve. In this case, it's an already printed book being sold for profit, which means I'd want more than a link and attribution, especially since it was done without my consent.
posted by yeloson at 8:13 PM on April 2, 2011

Response by poster: Also: if anyone has something other than "Get a Lawyer"/"Lawyer isn't worth the money", I'm all ears. I think those two basic things are pretty well covered here.

Links to people who have dealt with copyright infringement, resources for writers/authors regarding this, or groups or orgs that might help, all very welcome.
posted by yeloson at 8:15 PM on April 2, 2011

Might want to file your copyright with Library of Congress asap. You have to do it before you take legal action, it is cheap and easy and can't do any harm.

At the same time, copyright only protects your words, not your ideas. As mentioned above, if it is your ideas that were taken, then you have a moral position but probably not much of a legal one. (IANAL but if you want advice from random strangers, I think this is correct.)
posted by metahawk at 8:57 PM on April 2, 2011

Might want to file your copyright with Library of Congress asap. You have to do it before you take legal action, it is cheap and easy and can't do any harm.

I know nothing about copyright, but I am pretty sure this is wrong. If you're in the US, filing registration papers for your copyright AFTER the infringement may not get you the main benefit of registration -- statutory rather than actual damages. If it wasn't registered at the time of the infringement it doesn't make sense for you to get actual damages. But I think you can sue even without registering the copyright.

All of which really seems like a moot point, since there's almost certainly not enough money at stake here to justify legal action.
posted by jayder at 9:40 PM on April 2, 2011

yeloson - Just because they wrote about some concepts that you once had on your defunct blog doesn't mean they owe you anything for writing about them. I'm not sure how you think ideas work, but you don't own them just because you coined them or first wrote about them.

There are a couple of ways of protecting works like what you're describing: patents and copyright (and maybe trademark). Even if you patented these ideas, writing about them isn't a breach of patent. If they "copied" your work then you might have a copyright case, but I'm really really skeptical that you'd be able to get anything to make this fight worthwhile.

What is the outcome you're looking for here? If you don't even have your original articles up on the web anywhere then you don't appear to care very much about furthering your ideas and concepts. I'd be thankful that someone else thought they were interesting enough to write about and move on with my life.

If you're looking for credit then you should contact the author, but they would be doing you a courtesy to mention you. They're under no obligation whatsoever.

Obviously, this is not legal advice.
posted by ged at 10:57 PM on April 2, 2011

Also, you should use proper terms. This doesn't sound like plagiarism at all.
posted by ged at 10:59 PM on April 2, 2011

Response by poster: I'd be thankful that someone else thought they were interesting enough to write about and move on with my life.

Thanks for sharing how -you'd- feel about it.

That was very helpful.
posted by yeloson at 11:30 PM on April 2, 2011

Yep, no problem. Happy to share.

I'm assuming since you're posting to AxMe then you're interested in other people's ideas on this very important matter. If not then you could always just complain about this evil evil publisher on your blog.

A bunch of people took the time to write thoughtful responses to your question. Maybe you should take some of those responses to heart.
posted by ged at 11:40 PM on April 2, 2011 [5 favorites]

After looking up your concept (I'm always interested in ideas about drama and conflict), I recommend telling these New Zealanders, "You just built your own personal Conflict Web."

It's rude for an author not to acknowledge major ideas. But one issue I saw was that it seems like your concepts were adapted into some other RPGs earlier. And if this is so I wonder how they credited or failed to credit you, and what proprietary arrangement they may have acknowledged or not.
posted by Victorvacendak at 12:18 AM on April 3, 2011

If it wasn't registered at the time of the infringement it doesn't make sense for you to get actual damages. But I think you can sue even without registering the copyright.

I'm guessing this was a typo and you meant to say 'statutory', and that's pretty much right. In order to gain the benefits of registration (attorney's fees and statutory damages) the work has to be registered before the earlier of: 3 months of original publication or 30 days of learning of the infringement. Without registration you can still sue for actual damages and injunctive relief.

...but that's all U.S. copyright law. I don't have a good recollection of how those rules play with the different IP treaties and foreign law. If the author and publisher are both foreign, the talk of U.S. copyright statutes might be totally useless.
posted by toomuchpete at 12:26 AM on April 3, 2011

Your 'idea' about 'flag framing' seems to be that you should look for "way(s) for the player to tell the GM what they think is interesting and important." You explicitly note a number of games that already had 'obvious mechanisms' for doing this, so it's not a new idea, or even your idea - the only original creative process you seem to have performed is to label it. When somebody on your old blog said "I make up some of the main characters and the others I just write them down when they are encountered", you said "That's pretty much what this is. Mark down the major movers and shakers in the game, and run with it."

And that's it. See a player maxing out a trap detecting skill so you make sure to 'flag' that and then set up scenes to let them play out what's important to them? (It's your example, not mine.) You really want to try to extract cash from somebody for recycling this gobsmackingly obvious idea without attribution?

Seriously, what is 'the work' you're talking about controlling? Is it the term 'flag framing'? Because you've got SFA chance of protecting your particular name for a GMing practice so common and obvious that I hesitate to call it an 'idea', and that wasn't even yours to begin with.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:05 AM on April 3, 2011

(I mean, what would you say if the estate of Hobbes, Locke or Rousseau wanted money from you for writing about the concept of a social contract without attributing the original 'idea' to them? I imagine you'd point to the comments on that article - that the idea was 'subliminal', that there was very little unique about it, that it's implicit - in your defence. Why attribute what everybody unconsciously knows, many explicitly do and most others do without thinking? Well, all the comments there apply to your 'idea' about flag framing, too.)
posted by obiwanwasabi at 4:18 AM on April 3, 2011

Best answer: Gather the following items:
-A copy of the original article your wrote
-The date you published it
-Any copyright claims on your blog or website (it isn't necessary that you did this, but it does make it clear that you were not releasing to the public domain)
-take the materials and go to and register your work.

Then write letter and send it via fedex or some other provider that will let you verify receipt. Include:
-assert your beleif they have ncluded your intellectual property
-include a copy of the relevant sections from the disputed work and highlight them, and the sections of your work which overlap. Identify each of these instances of copying and note them in your letter.

Letter format should be:
I have discovered the work published as [title] / [isbn] contains materials created and published by me at [old URL], and archived in the Internet at [wayback URL]. I have noted the following examples from the works for your reference.

Example #1 (highlight and mark as such): as you can see in this instance x,y, z are similar and reuse (sentences, symbols, terms) --- (what you need to show is how similiar these are.)
[add more examples and explanations]

Close the letter with a request that they contact you to resolve this matter and your preferred method of contact (if it's phone include the +1 since they are calling internationally). Don't propose anything in the letter. Wait until you talk to them to find out the scope and their offer. A reasonable solution is probably a few hundred bucks and credit in subsequent printings.
posted by humanfont at 5:51 AM on April 3, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm guessing this was a typo and you meant to say 'statutory'

Yes, that was a typo ... Thanks.
posted by jayder at 8:00 AM on April 3, 2011

Response by poster: Just got an email back from the publisher. Crossing my fingers this can be resolved with minimal pain and drama!

Also, I've contacted another author who also had his work used in this project as well- he was not contacted about this product either. I should be having a full conversation with him today.
posted by yeloson at 8:13 AM on April 3, 2011

My main suggestion to you, yeloson, is that you try being courteous and non-threatening in your first overture to the publisher, and consider accepting an acknowledgment in future publications or a small token payment. It sounds as though the use of these words or concepts that you pioneered may form a tiny fraction of the offending work, in which case the "theft" doesn't look so much like theft, as it does a tacky failure to give you credit. It seems very, very unlikely that you would win substantial damages for this infringement given that it might be hard to prove actual damage. Were you even trying to make money from these concepts? Have these concepts made the infringer a bunch of money? Would your recovery exceed the substantial legal fees you would have to pay up front?

I've often wondered about this sort of thing. When you coin a term, how long does it stay "yours"? Or is it ever yours? Was there any reason for the readers of your blog to think that YOU invented these terms? I can imagine a diligent researcher seeing your blog entry and thinking, "aha, 'flag framing,' I didn't realize that's what it's called, glad I found this entry," and not realizing that it was your coinage. If you put the concept of "flag framing" into circulation, are others free to use it without attribution? It kind of makes sense that they would be free ... I haven't heard of copyrighting words that aren't brand names or trademarks.
posted by jayder at 8:18 AM on April 3, 2011

Having seen your update -- good.
posted by jayder at 8:19 AM on April 3, 2011

jayder: "I've often wondered about this sort of thing. When you coin a term, how long does it stay "yours"? Or is it ever yours? "

Terms differ from copyright in that you should register them to protect them and what you are establishing is trademark.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:20 AM on April 3, 2011

I doubt you can do anything about it unless you have royalty. There are a lot of cases that ideas are identical even though they didn't really mean to steal or something. Whoever names it first gets it - (but) that's what I think it is. I'm not sure if you'd want to spend attorney fees on something that might not work at all.

There are a bunch of people nowadays (even before) that takes ideas from other people, mashing them all together - re-changing how it's been said and writes it down in a book and sells it. I don't see them getting sued :\

posted by Johnkx at 1:12 PM on April 3, 2011

Best answer: I asked a friend who's involved in the gaming industry, and here's what he had to say:

RedBrick are an NZ/German enterprise, but this is clearly out of the German side of things. My dealings with the NZ people in the company have all been excellent - top-notch chaps. Also, I think they're operating purely as a publishing house here, i.e. this book wasn't written in-house but was brought to them for potential publication by an outsider.

I don't think I have any particular advice to give him, unfortunately. He should definitely ask for an acknowledgement in subsequent printings and current electronic editions, but I don't think they're obliged to do anything more; the company might decide to do so, of course. Lawyering up seems way too much trouble to go to, even if he has plans to monetise these ideas himself.

posted by rodgerd at 2:13 AM on April 5, 2011 [1 favorite]

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