Theft, Disrespect and Retribution: the “Cook’s Source” Debacle

This is another example of how ethical insights can emerge from the most unlikely episodes, as one obscure website stole material from another, and ignited web vigilante justice on a grand scale.

Medieval  food expert and enthusiast Monica Gaudio learned from a friend that the e-magazine Cook’s Source had taken her online article about the origins of apple pie and reprinted it without her permission. Assuming it was an innocent error, Gaudio wrote the site and requested an apology, as well as a $130 donation to the Columbia School of Journalism to make amends for what was a blatant copyright violation.

The managing editor at Cook’s Source, Judith Griggs, didn’t recognize a generous and reasonable offer when she saw one. Instead of proper contrition for taking Gaudio’s work without permission, Griggs decide to go for a new high in arrogant defiance, writing…

“Yes Monica, I do know about copyright laws. … But honestly Monica the web is considered ‘public domain’ and you should be happy we just didn’t ‘lift’ your whole article and put someone else’s name on it! It happens a lot, clearly more than you are aware of, especially on college campuses, and the workplace. If you took offence and are unhappy, I am sorry, but you as a professional should know that the article we used written by you was in very bad need of editing, and is much better now than was originally. … We put some time into rewrites, you should compensate me!”

Seldom are so many ethics fouls packed into so few words. Note that:

  1. She is factually wrong: web content is not presumed to be public domain. For the editor of a webzine to be so utterly clueless about copyright law is incompetence personified.
  2. “It happens a lot” is the Golden Rationalization, “Everybody does it,” an invalid justification for unethical and, in this case, illegal conduct.
  3. Griggs, an editor, actually cites plagiarism and cheating in school as justification for what her magazine did, using another rationalization, my personal least favorite, “It isn’t the worst thing.”
  4. Griggs employs the classic, and despicable, “non-apology apology” language, expressing regret that Gaudio was upset by the magazine’s theft, but none over the theft itself.
  5. She then rejects accountability, responsibility, respect, fairness, and common decency by insulting the author of the piece her magazine stole, by stating that it was badly written and she ought to be grateful for the Cook’s Source edit. To top it off, she did this in a message that was badly in need of editing itself.

Gaudio, who like most of us did not have the time or spare cash to embark on a legal remedy, wrote about the episode on her blog. She also reprinted Griggs’ response to her. While I believe it is unfair and unethical to publish or circulate private e-mail  exchanges without permission  in order to embarrass someone, my objection does not extend to communications made in a business context, especially ones so unprofessional and unbusinesslike as Griggs’ outrageous response. Moreover, Griggs’ words suggest unapologetic endorsement of criminal and unethical practices by her magazine, and in such cases, the public has a right to know about them. Gaudio had an obligation to reveal her treatment by Cook’s Source. After all, maybe it had treated other authors the same way.

And indeed it had. What happened next was a classic, and frightening, example of vigilante justice on the web. The Cook’s Source Facebook page was overwhelmed with attacks on Griggs and the magazine’s ethics by bloggers and others who had learned about Gaudio’s mistreatment and had decided that a little Internet justice was called for. Some began investigating Cook’s Source’s other articles, and discovered serial theft; one blogger created a spreadsheet tracking the purloined  pieces and their original sources.

This moved Griggs to post the following “apology” on the Cook’s Source Facebook page:

“Hi Folks!

Well, here I am with egg on my face! I did apologise to Monica via email, but apparently it wasn’t enough for her. To all of you, thank you for your interest in Cooks Source and Again, to Monica, I am sorry – my bad! You did find a way to get your “pound of flesh…” we used to have 110 “friends,” we now have 1,870… wow!

…Best to all, Judith”

This mocking, insulting, arrogant and unprofessional note had the approximate effect of kicking a hornet nest. Multiple bloggers began writing about Cook’s Source as a web renegade. Bogus Twitter accounts were created with Cook’s Source’s name or Judith Griggs’, and used to send out embarrassing and satirical messages. The magazine’s Facebook page was completely taken over by Gaudio’s defenders. Cook’s Source advertisers were threatened with boycotts, and deluged with e-mails calling on them to cut ties with the site.

Before long, the Facebook page had been discontinued, and publication of the magazine as well. Where it once dwelled in cyberspace now is only an unsigned statement, which reads in part:

“We have cancelled our Facebook page on Thursday, November 4th, 2010 at 6:00PM. It has since been since been hacked by unknown parties and now someone else unknown to us has control of it. Their inclusion of Cooks Source issues and photos is used without our knowledge or consent. Please know that none of the statements made by either Cooks Source or Judith Griggs were made by either our staff or her.

We do not, and never have had a Twitter page, so what is attributed as our presence or our statements have nothing to do with Cooks Source or Judith Griggs.

We also cancelled our website on the above date, as our advertisers were listed therein, and with the harassment that has taken place on Facebook, we felt was unsafe for them.

Cooks Source will not be on Facebook again at any time in the future: hacking is too prevalent and apparently too easily performed by disreputable people. The email and Facebook abuse of our advertisers is the prime example: it is hurtful to people who are innocent of this issue, and can ill-afford the abuse — either emotionally or financially. Small business owners are being bombarded with hate mail, and distasteful messages because someone downloaded their contact information on these bogus sites. These small business owners work very hard to keep their businesses going in a bad economy. We respectfully request this harassment be stopped immediately. If you or anyone knows of this abuse, you should go to the bogus Cooks Source (or other bogus pages) Facebook page, look to the left side of the page and press “Report Abuse,” or else go to How to Report Claims of Intellectual Property Infringement, The Facebook Corporate phone number are 650-543-4800, 650-853-1300 and 650-543-4811which hopefully will assist interested parties who feels these snipers who are perpetuating hate have gotten out of hand and want to report it…

Last month an article, “American as Apple Pie — Isn’t,” was placed in error in Cooks Source, without the approval of the writer, Monica Gaudio. We sincerely wish to apologize to her for this error, it was an oversight of a small, overworked staff. We have made a donation at her request, to her chosen institution, the Columbia School of Journalism. In addition, a donation to the Western New England Food Bank, is being made in her name. It should be noted that Monica was given a clear credit for using her article within the publication, and has been paid in the way that she has requested to be paid.

This issue has made certain changes here at Cooks Source. Starting with this month, we will now list all sources. Also we now request that all the articles and informational pieces will have been made with written consent of the writers, the book publishers and/or their agents or distributors, chefs and business owners. All submission authors and chefs and cooks will have emailed, and/or signed a release form for this material to Cooks Source and as such will have approved its final inclusion. Email submissions are considered consent, with a verbal/written follow-up. Recipes created in the Cooks Source Kitchen are owned by Cooks Source and as such approval is given for chefs and cooks in our area to use them. Artwork used is created by our staff, or is royalty-free or purchased “clip-art.”

However: Cooks Source can not vouch for all the writers we have used in the past, and in the future can only check to a certain extent. Therefore, we will no longer accept unrequested articles, nor will we work with writers or illustrators unless they can prove they are reputable people, provide their sources, and who, in our estimation, we feel our readers and advertisers can trust and rely on for accuracy and originality. All sources will be listed with the articles, along with the permission, where necessary…

Victory! Cook’s Source was forced to change its unethical practices and to compensate Gaudio. Vigilante justice worked.

That doesn’t make it right. The methods used to bring Cook’s Source to its knees can be just as easily used to harm undeserving web occupants, and even in this case, some of the methods used by Gaudio’s Avengers were indefensible, such as harassing advertisers and using fake Twitter accounts. There is a valid argument to be made that this is all just self-policing in a culture that has yet to define and codify its values. Until there is some way to police the self-appointed police, however, I am uncomfortable endorsing mob action on the web, even if provoked, as in this case.

I’ll be surprised if Cook’s Source returns, at least under that name, and I have little hope for it if it does. Even its capitulation demonstrated a lack of ethical awareness as well as failure to accept that the entire episode was the fault of its management.

Note that:

  • The statement complains, without a sense of irony, that its copyrighted images have been used without authorization, and has the gall to ask readers to report such violations. Amazing.
  • It characterizes the critics of the magazine as “snipers” engaging in “hate,” as if Cook’s Source was the victim, when in fact it was the wrongdoer. The use of the term “hate” to label and discredit legitimate critics who have something genuine to criticize is much in vogue these days. Those who regard Barry Bonds’ steroid use as unacceptable are called “haters;” those who criticize the Obama Administration’s policies are “haters.” This tactic, all by itself, should set off an ethics alarm.
  • Describing the original theft of Gaudio’s article as a “mistake” by an overworked staff is a blatant lie. If that was true, why did the magazine’s editor initially pronounce the use of the piece as intentional and acceptable? Why were there so many other articles similarly published without permission?
  • Astoundingly, the statement repeats Griggs’ original argument that the magazine deserves kudos for leaving Gaudio’s name on the article that she wrote, and suggests that this somehow makes their conduct more excusable. It doesn’t.

It all could have been prevented if the magazine had the new guidelines in place originally, as any publication is obligated to do before it goes public; if it had employed a professional and ethical managing editor, rather than Judith Griggs; it it had apologized to the writer it had wronged, Gaudio, rather than dismissing her complaints with insults; and if the staff and management occasionally glanced at a list of ethical values, most of which—-Trustworthiness, Responsibility, Respect, Fairness, Caring—they ignored.

Cook’s Source asked for what it got through its willful ignorance of ethics. I’m not comfortable with all the methods used to bring it down, but I have to admit that I’m pleased with the result.

2 thoughts on “Theft, Disrespect and Retribution: the “Cook’s Source” Debacle

  1. I was plagiarized twice by a local newspaper. My articles were used word for word, except where I used direct quotes from a source, the plagiarizer used paraphrasing. The editor of that newspaper was called by my editor after each incident, which, I believe, is what finally made it stop.
    It still amazes me that another newspaper (albeit a small county-wide weekly) would think it was OK to steal my work.
    Some people told me I should feel happy that they thought my work was good enough to reprint. I wasn’t happy. I was angry that they would be so lazy and rely on the hard work of someone else to sell their newspapers.

  2. I saw this tweeted. Apparently, there’s something new up there.

    She ends it with “To one writer in particular… I wish you had given me a chance.” A chance to what? Rip her off?!

    …is NOW finally a good time to enlist the phrase on Rihanna’s jewelry without it being inappropriate?

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