Organization That Plagiarized Guide On Making Science Posters Has Pricey Lawyer Threaten Original Creator With Copyright Claim

from the where-do-they-find-these-people dept

A bunch of folks have been sending in variations on the story about Colin Purrington, a guy who apparently created a “guide” to creating posters for scientific conferences that is somewhat popular online. The crux of the story is that Purrington, who has left academia, still spends time asking folks to take down any copies of his work — and he’s a bit obnoxious about it frankly — mocking anyone who suggests that a copy might involve fair use. He doesn’t seem to recognize that fair use exists.

Contents copyright Colin Purrington (1997-2013). Plagiarizing, adapting, and hosting elsewhere prohibited. Included in the plagiarizing prohibition is paraphrase plagiarism, which is when you copy sentences and phrases but make minor word changes to mask your theft. Also, I have lost my patience with people claiming that Fair Use allows them to bypass my copyright. Really, folks?

Well, yes, actually. That’s the whole point of fair use. If it’s fair use, it does let you bypass copyright. His copyright claim is a pretty clear example of copyfraud, overclaiming certain rights. Also, while I agree that he certainly may hold the copyright on the work, significant parts of the work are basically just factual statements, which generally aren’t subject to copyright protection, or, at the very least, very weak copyright protection.

That said, none of that means he deserves what then happened. He apparently sent one of his “hey stop it!” letters to Purdue University’s DMCA takedown address and cc’ing a general catchall email at the The Consortium for Plant Biotechnology Research (CPBR) after finding parts of his guide in a document hosted on the Purdue site, which was discussing an upcoming CPBR competition. While I think that Purrington goes way, way, way overboard in his claims about his own copyright, it does seem fairly clear that CPBR copied significant portions of Purrington’s own work. The original file is no longer on the Purdue website, though you can see it here (or embedded below). As the folks at Retraction Watch have pointed out, it’s pretty clear that the CPBR version copies heavily from Purrington’s document.

For what it’s worth, while Purrington sent a notice to Purdue’s DMCA address, his letter is clearly not a DMCA-compliant / takedown letter, and really does seem to be more of a “hey, you should take this down” admonition, including an exceptionally jokey closing line:

If you can cover the shipping charges, I would be grateful if you to send me the head of the person who did this.

Har har. Still, what came back was quite unexpected. A threat letter from CPBR’s very expensive lawyers at big shot law firm, Arnold & Porter. These guys cost a lot. In that letter, they claim that CPBR didn’t copy Purrington, but rather that Purrington copied CPBR and that now that they were aware that Purrington had violated the copyright on CPBR, they were threatening him with statutory damages, up to $150,000 for willful infringement, for copyright infringement if he didn’t take down his work.

Oh yeah, and they claim that jokey last line is being viewed “as a physical threat against [CPBR staff’s] personal safety” and warn that if any further threats are made, they will go to the authorities.

While Purrington’s guide has moved around online a few times (and ridiculously, no one covering this seems to link back to the original), you can find the earlier version that supports his story if you look in the Internet Archive for the guide’s old address at Swarthmore. CPBR’s letter clearly claims that CPBR created the content in 2005. Purrington’s guide dates back to 2001, though it is a bit different. Still, you can find both of the key passages highlighted by RetractionWatch in a late 2004 version of Purrington’s document (though, oddly, one of the copied phrases only shows up right at the very end of 2004, but that’s still before 2005).

CPBR is a big organization. It takes in tens of millions of dollars in government grants and then fees it out to universities to do research. You’d think that it would know better than to claim copyright over something when there’s pretty clear evidence that it was the one doing the copying.

While I find Purrington’s position on copyright a bit ridiculous (also: his continual confusion between plagiarism and copyright, his refusal to acknowledge fair use within the law, and inability to compose a complaint DMCA takedown notice), it does seem pretty clear here that the party over reacting (massively) is CPBR. When the Chronicle of Higher Education reached out to both CPBR’s director and the lawyer who wrote the letter, it appears that both hung up on the reporter. It might be time to admit that they royally screwed up here.

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Companies: consortium of plant biotechnology research, cpbr

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Comments on “Organization That Plagiarized Guide On Making Science Posters Has Pricey Lawyer Threaten Original Creator With Copyright Claim”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It is tempting to smirk and say “Karma, eh?”, but perhaps this might be a turning point for Colin. I’d like to hope that rather than entrenching into a tenuous copyright defense, he’ll see the light and become an evangelist for freedom of thought and expression through more clear and limited copyright. Over-assertion of copyright is the face of the problem here, and he can fight it on that front.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Re: You keep mistaking what sue-crazy lawyers do with copyright.

If you don’t like what Mike has to say, then go start your own blog. It’s that simple.

Nobody could read OOTB’s blog. You’d be violating copyright by viewing it without prior permission. I can see the opening page now…a link to his email asking for personal permission before you can read the first entry.

Why isn’t anyone reading his blog? Piracy! Obviously.

Danny (profile) says:

Re: Re: You keep mistaking what sue-crazy lawyers do with copyright.

At this point those lawyers are not going to sue. They are probably having a talk with their clients about that clear WayBack Machine proof that the article existed long before 2005 on Colin’s site and the risks they take on for themselves by suing.

All they got for their dollars to the law firm was a nasty legalgram that apparently both pissed off and scared Colin. They have got to be playing defense now.

And the Purdue University General Counsel’s Office can’t be very pleased either.

If Colin’s lawyer sends a nastygram to both the Center AND to Purdue, I bet the Center backs down (without admitting guilt most likely), and says, in effect, no harm, no foul. At that point Colin needs to ask to be made whole for the expenses he has taken on in return for not going after them (assuming he previous,y registered his copyright and has good chance of collecting statutory damages, as the real financial damage is minimal.)

IMHO (i am not a lawyer.)

Colin Purrington (user link) says:

Anti-copying verbiage

If anyone has suggestions on how I might word a less-obnoxious “do not copy my text” section, I’d be grateful. It’s obnoxious in part because earlier, less obnoxious versions were hugely ineffective. And about the Fair Use part, I added that after a rather large university in sunny southern california claimed it had the right under Fair Use to copy/paste my stuff without proper attribution (they eventually said that was untrue and took it down).

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Anti-copying verbiage

Good question.

I think the most important thing is not to overstate. When the a sports league states that “descriptions” of the game are prohibited without written consent, they just look ridiculous, and aren’t going to stop anyone from describing the game. And they don’t have the legal authority to stop them. So, along those lines, don’t say anything that you can’t legally back up if you have to.

Paraphrasing is probably OK under fair use… but changing a word or two is not really paraphrasing, that’s copying with edits. I think that’s what you meant by “paraphrase plagiarism”, but apparently not everyone gets that.

Anyway, good luck with this case.

Danny (profile) says:

Re: Re: Anti-copying verbiage

Colin, I suggest clearly differentiating the violation of copyright from the violation of plagiarism. As I am sure you know, they are not the same thing; and you also know that an academic is much more worried about being caught plagiarizing than violating copyright.

Regarding copyright: of course you have registered your copyright by now; if not, do so. As you already do, encourage people to link back to your site. As you probably know, there is no single clear cut test for fair use. What you might do (though it would have zero ti limited validity if ever tested in court) is lay out what you consider fair use to be for your document in the context of a website. Perhaps then, most would follow your guidelines and for those who do not, you would have a clear fallback position to guide them to make things right. A position that is less than your current absolutist position. You might also consider offering to license use of the document for a reasonable fee. Doing so, while it will never raise you significant revenue, will help establish a value should your copyright be violated–though asking price does not automatically constitute real market value. And it will make the free linking to option appear more desirable to many sites.

Regarding plagiarism: I think, in as friendly a way possible, you should make clear that you find non-attributioned borrowing of your work, subsets of your work, and closely paraphrased versions of your work unacceptable. And you should clearly state you will pursue plagiarism cases against individuals and institutions who plagiarize this work.

I think that will provoke much more notice among your academic audience than either the current or a revised copyright notice will.

ASIDE: After I saw your story on Facebook last week, I recommended to a conference I am close to that we link to your site as I think your poster advice is great–and we have many grad student first time presenters who are not at all clear on how to organize or present a poster. Email me if you care to track who this is.

Digitari says:

Re: Anti-copying verbiage

Honey Vs Vinegar

Have you tried “please”? have you tried Humor? have you asked to be at least credited?

Big Sticks and Hammers rarely work online, but shame is universal as is humor….

I know it’s hard but sometimes the “Streisand Effect” is the most effective tool, use it to Your advantage.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: Anti-copying verbiage

If anyone has suggestions on how I might word a less-obnoxious “do not copy my text” section, I’d be grateful. It’s obnoxious in part because earlier, less obnoxious versions were hugely ineffective. And about the Fair Use part, I added that after a rather large university in sunny southern california claimed it had the right under Fair Use to copy/paste my stuff without proper attribution (they eventually said that was untrue and took it down).

First off, thanks for stopping by and asking.

Second, I doubt whether or not making the message more obnoxious (and less accurate legally) helps anyway. Some people are always going to copy.

What we’ve seen time and time again is that a clear, friendly message explaining WHY you’d prefer they link instead of copy, written in a nice HUMAN way seems to work wonders.

Something along the lines of (and this is off the top of my head):

Thanks to everyone who seems to appreciate this site and find it helpful. I’ve been working on it for over a decade, and continually update it to make sure it is continually a useful reference to academics everywhere. As such, I recognize that it’s tempting for many people to copy much or all of this page and post it on their own site, and I really wish you would not do so for the following reasons:

  1. I put a lot of work into this, and knowing who is reading it helps me make sure that I’m best serving your needs.
  2. I constantly tweak and update the work, so copying it almost ensures that your version will be obsolete and out of date.
  3. It’s the nice, neighborly thing to do. The internet is built on sharing and links, so linking back to me is good for everyone.
  4. Finally, this is the result of my efforts, and I’m asking nicely, that if you like this, that you help promote it by sharing a link, rather than copying. I hope that you would follow my wishes on that front.

Yes, this work is also covered by copyright. Fair use *may* allow you to copy segments of it, depending on the context (generally very small segments, if done for educational purposes, and including significant additional commentary), but even in those cases, you’re probably still better off focusing people on the original, up-to-date source. Thanks for your support.

The old honey vs. vinegar thing (even if the honey/vinegar cliche isn’t actually accurate). Be nice, be human, explain what you want. Some people will still copy. Some people will always copy. But appeal to people’s good sides, and you’d be amazed at how they respond.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Anti-copying verbiage

And about the Fair Use part, I added that after a rather large university in sunny southern california claimed it had the right under Fair Use to copy/paste my stuff without proper attribution (they eventually said that was untrue and took it down).

Umm, no.

Attribution and fair use are not interdependent.

What probably happened in your story: University made fair use of the work, and told you so, but didn’t want to fight with someone who doesn’t understand fair use, and you interpreted their removal as “admission”.

Crosbie Fitch (profile) says:

Re: Anti-copying verbiage


You’ve already discovered that copyright is a weapon (a privilege – a state granted monopoly).

You are now discovering that it is not a weapon with fixed power, like a gun, but a weapon that amplifies the power of its wielder (ultimately, in the interest of the state that created it) – just like Sauron’s ring ?.

If you have the impertinence to allege copyright infringement against someone significantly more powerful than yourself (especially an immortal corporation), they will simply use copyright back against you – as you have found out.

Copyright is not about justice, or determining the truth of of a work’s provenance. A court is only involved in arbitration when both party’s litigation budgets are within reach of each other.

Consider yourself lucky you aren’t facing extradition, decades in jail, or mere bankruptcy. CPBR evidently admire your spunk enough to let you live to fight another day.

The remaining question for you is whether, like Boromir, you repent, or, like Sm?agol, you sell your soul in futile pursuit of a power never intended for mere mortals.

artp (profile) says:

Copyright trolls and biotech

It’s a match made in hell!

One owns every thought they’ve ever had, and anything similar, the other patents life, which they did not make, but discovered. And yes, I am aware of how biotech works. Very poorly. Do your patented process, grow out the results, and throw away everything that doesn’t match what you wanted. Bah, Humbug!

Despite Mike comments, I think they both deserve all that they can dish at each other.

Anonymous Coward says:

Don’t those expensive lawyers have a responsibility here to do some fact-checking before taking the case? And once they are aware of the Internet Archive clearly showing that Mr. Purrington’s document predates their client’s document, don’t they have an obligation to not pursue the matter any further?

Since they have already forced him to hire a lawyer, he may as well sue them now. I don’t know whether he’s registered the copyright, but even if he hasn’t, the demand letter will certainly suffice as grounds to bring the case to court.

I also love how they put “Proprietary & Confidential – Not For Public Release” on the legal threat letter. How’s that working out for them?

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