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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Filed Under: colin purrington, copyright, fair use, plagiarism, science posters, threats
Companies: consortium of plant biotechnology research, cpbr


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  1. icon
    Danny (profile), 8 Apr 2013 @ 12:16pm

    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.

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