2602495641_eb84a0e1c4_zPhoto by Satish Krishnamurthy via Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Reader’s Digest recently helped itself to one of my humor pieces. They ran an excerpt from “Would You Ask a Librarian For a Lap Dance?”—which first ran right here on Women’s Voices For Change. I had no idea that they’d done it until, reading the magazine, I turned a page. And there it was!  

They did give me a byline. But they hadn’t asked my permission to use the piece, or negotiated a payment. When I emailed the editor, she apologized, told me that they’d fully intended to get in touch, and sent me a check and a bunch of free copies.

This isn’t the first time this has happened. 

In fact, it happens a lot.

A while back, a story of mine was included in an anthology without my knowledge. How did I find out? The book was a collection of stories about doctors. My pal Don, a doctor, was given the book for his birthday. When he saw my story, he phoned. “Congratulations!,” he said, “for being in this doctoring anthology.”  

“Doctoring anthology? What doctoring anthology?” 

“Wait—you didn’t know you were in this book? How could that happen?”

Excellent question. 

When I got in touch with the publisher, I was told that the editors had found “Outpatient” in a long-defunct literary magazine. Although they were unable to locate me to ask my permission to use it, they liked the story so much that they’d included it in the book anyway.

“We owe you an apology,” they told me.    

“Yes you do!” I agreed. “You also owe me $200.” (That’s my usual reprint fee.)

A week later, I had the check. 

I understand how this happens. I used to edit women’s humor anthologies myself. I’d move heaven and earth to track down authors and get the rights. But, in a few cases, the piece was so good that even if I couldn’t find the writer, I crossed my fingers and used it anyway, assuming that writers would rather discover that they’re in a cool book and be paid after the fact than be left out. 

But I’m starting to wonder how much time and effort some editors are actually taking. Is publish-first-and-pay-later an honest mistake? Or is grab-the-content-and-see-who-notices a new business model?

Two years ago, a Canadian company that creates standardized tests included two of my stories in their testing materials without telling me. I found out only because a teacher whose job was to grade the tests liked my stories so much that she wrote me a fan letter. 

When I asked them about it, I was told that they’d found the stories online, but had been unable to locate me.

“But I have a website!” I protested. “My work runs in The New York Times! I blog on The Huffington Post. I’ve even been on the Today Show. If you Google ‘Writer Roz Warren,’ THOUSANDS of links turn up. So-just how hard did you try?”

“We have an escrow account for you,” was the response. “It has $4,000 in it. Where should we send the check?’’

For that kind of money, I told them to help themselves to my work anytime.  

And then there are the Nefarious Content Thieves. These are sites that swipe your stuff, remove your byline, change your title, and presto—it’s new content on their site!

One site recently grabbed one of my essays, changed a few lines, and published it on their site under their editor’s byline. (How did I find out? A reader who recognized it alerted me.) The site didn’t take it down until the editor who’d originally published (and paid for) it wrote them a threatening email.

The good news? If my experience is any indication, we writers can often rely on loyal readers to police this activity. But it’s also clear that a writer in the digital age must remain Ever Vigilant.

“From time to time,” one writer pals tells me,  “I’ll Google a line from one of my popular essays. You’d be amazed how much chicanery this turns up.”

When an editor tells me that using my work without asking was an honest mistake (or even a calculated risk), I believe her. (Especially if an apology and a check are forthcoming.) And you’ve got to trust the Reader’s Digest. It’s almost un-American not to. 

Still, all of this does make me wonder how many magazines, websites, anthologies, and TV shows have run my work without my knowledge. I’ll never know for sure. 

I console myself with that thought that theft, as they say, is the most sincere form of flattery. And feel grateful for the readers who notice when my work is being filched and let me know.  

My advice to my fellow writers? Stay vigilant. Google yourself often. Hope that if your readers see something, they’ll say something. 

And, if all else fails? You can always write an essay about it.

 

More Essays by Roz Warren

Roz Warren: Damn! It’s a Low-Salt Life for Us

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPouring salt on my food is one of the cornerstones of my identity. “Would you like some soup with your salt?” my brother-in-law will joke, watching me rain salt into his delicious homemade fish chowder.

 

Library Law: Checking in Books and Breaking Up Fights

9733763683_de45d5361e_zWe librarians are expected to check out your books and answer your reference questions. But we’re often called upon to perform other tasks. For example, breaking up fights between moms in our play area.

Roz Warren: Less Is Less

5436723519_458dec7cc4_zI can’t afford the world travel, the pricey coffee table art books and the expensive restaurant meals that I used to enjoy. Do I miss those things? Not enough to return to the rat race that makes them possible. This is what I’ve discovered — having less means having less stress.

 

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  • Robyn June 15, 2016 at 2:04 pm

    I should be surprised this happens, sadly I am not. I’m so glad you’ve been compensated for your work!! Maybe one day I’ll be good enough to be stolen too 🙂 just kiddong!

    Reply
  • Jennifer June 13, 2016 at 9:57 pm

    Wow, I’m surprised by how much this happens, so lucky you got paid in most cases—especially 4000.00!

    Reply
  • Cathy Lawdanski June 13, 2016 at 8:23 pm

    It’s hard to believe that any number of people could steal your identity and find out all kinds of information on you, but and editor couldn’t find you to get your permission. Google alerts is a good idea!

    Reply
  • dan June 13, 2016 at 7:45 pm

    Makes you wonder how many cases are out there that you have not found. I wonder the same. I get a lot of requests for blog reposts, and lots of places link to my blog, which is great. I think to myself, “It’s really nice that everyone is careful about giving credit.” Then i think, wait a second. If there others out there just cutting and pasting, how would I ever find it?

    Reply
  • Leanne June 13, 2016 at 7:29 pm

    I’m just envious so many places love your work enough to steal it! So glad you got reimbursed for the ones you discovered (and that $4000 would have been a nice consolation prize!)

    Reply
  • Rebecca Forstadt Olkowski June 13, 2016 at 7:19 pm

    Wow! I wish someone would steal my work so I can charge them too! LOL

    Reply
  • Helene Cohen Bludman June 13, 2016 at 7:05 pm

    Yikes! I hear variations on these theme way too often. It’s so wrong!

    Reply
  • Carol Cassara June 13, 2016 at 6:47 pm

    Are you kidding me? That is OUTRAGEOUS. I am sputtering away over here. I guess morality is a myth.

    Reply
  • sue June 13, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    I’m not sure my writing is that great that they would use it without my knowledge – but who knows one day LOL:). Fortunately, my name is not that common so I could search as you suggest.

    Reply
  • Lois Alter Mark June 13, 2016 at 6:29 pm

    Wow. I’m actually shocked – and appalled – that a publication like Reader’s Digest would print first and do the right thing only when you caught them. Good for you for being vigilant!

    Reply
  • Nancy Hill June 13, 2016 at 5:50 pm

    My name is so common that searching for my stuff under a different title is a nightmare! And I know how to search! I need to look for my stuff more often.

    Reply
  • jamie June 13, 2016 at 5:02 pm

    It is crazy to think someone might just do that out of pure laziness and not at least try and find the author. Btw, I’m stealing that link at the top of your comments just in case my work ever becomes popular enough to steal lol!

    Reply
  • Ashley J. June 13, 2016 at 4:59 pm

    Don’t ask permission, ask forgiveness – publishers creed.

    Reply
  • Kelly June 13, 2016 at 4:46 pm

    That’s crazy!

    Reply
  • Judith Ross June 13, 2016 at 4:45 pm

    Gosh this burns me up. I don’t think that most people who call themselves “editors” actually “edit” anything, either in tracking down sources as you so articulately describe or in helping writers improve their work. In fact, I’m finding that online editors when they do try to improve my prose tend to add more errors into my text.

    And then there are all the writers just starting out who don’t know how truly valuable a good editor’s input is to their continuing development. I feel so fortunate to have worked with some of the best editors in Boston during my writing career.

    Thanks so much for raising awareness about this issue, which doesn’t just impact writers, but also artists, photographers, and musicians who in this digital world often find their hard work is up for grabs.

    Reply
  • hillsmom June 13, 2016 at 4:24 pm

    Frankly I’m just delighted to read another humorous piece from you anyway. Congratulations on being able to track down and receive your just due…(dues?)

    Reply
  • Jim Sullivan June 13, 2016 at 3:27 pm

    Great stuff. In my case, I have such a common name that I often wonder if someone else might have received checks meant for me. It is not just a paranoid thought. I once received a check from the Boston Globe that was meant for another writer whose byline is James (not “Jim”) Sullivan, so I imagine it’s entirely possible my stuff has been published somewhere with the check going to someone else. In case you’re wondering – and, if so, shame on you – I returned the check to the Globe (although I do have to be honest and say that had I known how many of my pieces they would subsequently reject, I might have given more thought to keeping it.)

    Reply
  • Ellen Dolgen June 13, 2016 at 1:04 pm

    Wow, I had no idea this was happening so much. Thanks for the tip! I did have someone grab Menopause Mondays! I thought that was quite incredible. I have had this for 9 years! I am not interested in sharing my husband or my brand with anyone!

    Reply
  • Risa June 13, 2016 at 12:17 pm

    Wow, Roz! Good on you for being vigilant, and for having such loyal fans who keep an eye out for your work. I love the “we’ve got an escrow account for you” part–sweet!

    Reply
  • Dave Astor June 13, 2016 at 12:07 pm

    Great and informative piece, Roz, with a perfect last line! The lazy or greedy exploitation of freelance writers is clearly much larger than the bank accounts of freelance writers. 🙁

    Reply
  • Roz Warren June 13, 2016 at 11:30 am

    Roxanne Jones I do honestly believe that the Readers Digest fully intended to pay me. I know too many writers who have been paid in full by them upfront to doubt that. But in my case, I had to give them a little push…

    Reply
  • Mister Wonderful June 13, 2016 at 11:17 am

    Wonderful!

    Reply
  • Roxanne Jones June 13, 2016 at 11:10 am

    Yikes, I’d heard about the nefarious sites that are ripping writers off, but when legit publications like Readers Digest seemingly attempt it, well, yeah, I guess we do need to be vigilant. Thanks for the pointers!

    Reply
  • A Google Alerter June 13, 2016 at 10:55 am

    I have an idea, Roz! Set up a Google Alert. I do this for my work. Set up an alert to search your name or a line from your most commonly-stolen essay and Google will email you every time there’s something new published with your search terms on the internet!

    https://www.google.com/alerts

    Reply