by Furry Girl

03.06.12

[Updated after NPR responded by snidely mocking me on their web site and refusing to so much as apologize.  If they would prefer to handle this as an internet flame war, I'll give them one Google will remember until the end of time.]

This week, I got a surprising email from a friend.  He'd heard an NPR program, On the Media, re-hash what was obviously one of my blog posts, but without attribution to either my pseudonym or my blog URL.  It was about my FOIA story from a couple of months ago.  I knew exactly what my friend was referring to, because I had declined an interview request from On the Media's pushy and annoying Sarah Abdurrahman last week.  They'd gone ahead and done a story on me anyway, borrowing from my blog post, and I would have never known of NPR's theft if I didn't know someone who listened to the show.

The punchline is that On the Media portrays itself as a bastion of media ethics, bravely "[tackling] sticky issues with a frankness and transparency that has built trust with listeners."  This wasn't just some Tumblr account with a dozen followers pilfering my work, but a nationally-broadcast radio program on NPR, which proudly cites that it "has won Edward R. Murrow Awards for feature reporting and investigative reporting, the National Press Club's Arthur Rowse Award for Press Criticism and a Peabody Award for its body of work."

My FOIA story is definitely one of the most "journalistic" pieces I've ever had on my blog.  Yes, it has snark, but it's also real original reporting.  I filed Freedom of Information Act requests with over a dozen government agencies, waited for about 7 months, and then combed through over 400 pages of disclosure to find the pieces of the story I most wanted to tell.  I wasn't just posting my opinions on a popular news item of the week that someone else broke, I was writing based on original source materials, for which I was the only civilian who has access.  I was posting things that had never been online previously, but would be of interest to the public.  If that's not "real journalism," I don't know what is.

Not only was my FOIA piece a genuinely journalistic effort on my part, it's also a very personal topic.  I am especially protective of my work being stolen by NPR because it's about me and my experiences as an activist.  I wasn't writing about FBI surveillance of the Black Panthers from 40 years ago, I was writing about the FBI surveillance detail that followed me for a few days.  This is my story in every sense of the word.

I am referred to only as "a woman" in Sarah Abdurrahman's broadcast of minute and a half which carefully avoids using a name for me, and although the show's summary on the web does link to my blog (though still doesn't mention my name or my blog's name), I doubt many NPR listeners actually check every show's web summary after a story to see if any extra references have been added.  I certainly have never sought out a radio show's web site to read a show's summary and make sure it reflected what I heard on the air.  Radio is a broadcast media that provides audio news and commentary, the audience are listeners, not readers.  An online summary is merely filler and search engine optimizing for their web site, another way to get listeners and money.  NPR and Sarah Abdurrahman stole my work, and I didn't even get the benefit of some national exposure.

I publish my blog under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 Unported License.  For those unfamiliar with Creative Commons, it's a way for "content creators" like me to protect their work while also allowing for sharing of ideas.  It's a more personalized form of copyright protection that lets a creator specify what people can and can't do with their work.  Creative Commons has held up in multiple courts around the world as a real copyright policy, including federal court in the US, so it's not a "made-up goofball license" as someone obnoxiously said to me on Twitter.

My specific Creative Commons stipulations mean that you can share, quote, and repost my writing, but you can't use it for commercial purposes, you are required to attribute it to my pseudonym and blog with a link, and that you can't make derivative works, defined as "You may not alter, transform, or build upon this work."  The derivative works portion is a grey area, and whether or not the taxpayer-subsidized NPR counts as "commercial" is also up for debate, but NPR and Sarah Abdurrahman unquestionably violated the attribution requirements of my Creative Commons licensing.  Even the one link they provided to my blog on their show summary page on the web (which probably has .0001% of the audience of their radio broadcast) didn't follow the attribution requirements.  To quote my Creative Commons license conditions, "Attribution — You must attribute Feminisnt to Furry Girl (with link)."

As far as I can tell, the attribution portion of Creative Commons license has not yet been tested in court in the United States.  It has been tested in Belgium and Israel, and in both cases, the content creator won the case.  I would love to the the American test case for attribution.

NPR and Sarah Abdurrahman violated both the letter and spirit of my Creative Commons licensing, and in doing so, they have opened themselves up to legal action. [See my third update at the end of this post.]

Here's more of the backstory, which you can skip if you're short on time, and go directly to the final paragraphs of this post.

On February 28, after sending emails asking for an interview about my FOIA story at 8:55am, 10:58am, and 11:00am, NPR's Sarah Abdurrahman moved to Twitter and yet again contacted me at 12:55pm.  (News flash: if I don't reply to your annoying messages within the hour, don't assume you need to keep contacting me over and over and over.  This is considered bad internet behavior.)  I normally delete and ignore messages from people who exhibit spammer-level cluelessness, but I was feeling generous, and replied to the first of Sarah Abdurrahman's emails, shown below.

From: "Sarah Abdurrahman" <SAbdurrahman@wnyc.org>
Date: February 28, 2012 8:55:59 AM PST
To: <>
Subject: from NPR

Hello,

I am a producer with the National Public Radio program On the Media, a media analysis show that covers topics from First Amendment issues, to new media, and everything in between.  You can find out more about us at onthemedia.org. One of the topics we like to discuss is transparency and Freedom of Information…which is why I was so interested to come across your story about FOIA-ing yourself!  If you are available, we would love to have you on our program to talk about your experience with FOIA.  We are not a live show, so we can be fairly flexible with scheduling an interview.  Are you available to join us?  Thanks in advance,

Sarah Abdurrahman|On the Media
160 Varick Street, New York NY 10013
T: 646.829.4567|E: sabdurrahman@wnyc.org
WNYC: WNYC.ORG|93.9 FM|AM 820

I do not feel like I'm the best person to speak on the issue of Freedom of Information Act Requests, or on the domestic surveillance of American activists.  I really believe that "we" should only put forward the formal or informal spokespersons who are the best at a topic.  It always annoys me when I see people who don't know an issue well trying to explain it to the media, especially media like a radio or television broadcasts.  For those reasons, I declined the interview and referred Abdurrahman to someone whose work centers on that topic in which she was interested.  (I'm omitting his name and credentials from these emails just to avoid dragging him into the mess.)  I was already being too nice, in retrospect.  I tend to err on the side of politeness when dealing with the media, even if they're annoying pests, because you never know when you might need them in the future.

From: Feminisnt <>
Date: February 28, 2012 3:06:34 PM PST
To: Sarah Abdurrahman <SAbdurrahman@wnyc.org>
Subject: Re: from NPR

Hello there

Thanks for contacting me.  I'm flattered by the offer, but I really don't think my case is particularly interesting or special.  There are much more interesting topics when it comes to FBI surveillance of American activists, and I'd rather see a more meaningful case get air time.  I agree that it's a great topic, but my situation isn't special, and I'm not an expert on FOIA issues in general.  My particular incident of being followed went nowhere and resulted in no arrests, whereas some cases result in major prosecutions, illegal wiretaps, and far more amusing anecdotes.

If you're looking for someone to discuss government surveillance of activists, [redacted] would be a much better choice than me, and he's written a lot about surveillance and prosecution of [activists].  His email address is [redacted].

Furry Girl

Sarah Abdurrahman refused to take "no" for an answer, and sent me two more emails, on February 28 and 29.  Maybe it's a sex worker thing, but anytime someone openly disrespects my politely telling them "no," and continues to insist that I should acquiesce to their demands, I immediately close off and decide I will never have anything to do with them.  Sex work teaches you nothing if not boundaries and how to assert your limits in the face of pushy people who feel entitled to your time and energy.  If I say "no" to you the first time, I will never, ever change my mind if you keep bothering me.

The meta issue of NPR, On the Media, and Sarah Abdurrahman's theft and disrespect is this: the "legitimate" media - meaning anyone who can afford broadcast licenses or physical paper distribution, even if it's a "small" news organization like NPR - shits on bloggers and independent writers all the time.  We're just a bunch of silly kids making lolcats and scribbling nonsense, except when we're not, and then the media will shamelessly steal our work.  How often do you see CNN or a major news network not bother to send reporters to cover stories, but just read off the tweets from bloggers and others in an area?  That's but one example of how the mainstream media loves to use bloggers and independent writers while stopping short of truly respecting their legitimacy as reporters.  Bloggers are not only sometimes the best sources of news, but sometimes the only sources.  We break new ground, we do original research, we look at source material the mainstream usually doesn't even bother with, and best case scenario, a "real" media agency might read a few sentences from us on the air amid their fluff.  Add to the mix that I write mostly about sexual politics and sex work, and I'm beyond invisible, I'm the lowest scum on the "respectable writers" totem pole.  It feels like a double dose of the disregarding sneer the mainstream press shows to both bloggers and sex workers.  (Sex workers constantly cope with outsiders re-telling, re-purposing, and twisting our stories for their benefit, not ours.)

I've emailed a number of lawyers, including the Electronic Frontier Foundation about my issue, and I'd love to take this to federal court as a test case for the attribution requirements of Creative Commons.  I haven't fired off my own DMCA takedown requests, because I'm generally loath to use the over-reaching DMCA laws, even when I'm in the right.  I believe it's important to keep pushing the message that bloggers can be journalists, that Creative Commons is a real copyright that should be respected, and that the media can't just steal from small unpaid writers like myself.  (See the EFF's guide to blogger's rights issues here.)

Aside from the occasional presents from my wishlist, I am not compensated for the countless hours I've poured into writing.  I write about things I'm passionate about, and I do so without expectation of riches, fame, or ever "crossing over" into the world of "real" writing.  I simply don't want news organizations and journalists blithely stealing my work without so much as attribution or a thank you, just so they can earn their salaries, ad/sponsorship revenue, or viewer donations at my expense.  I don't think that's too much to ask.  I put a lot of my time and pieces of my life out there to write my FOIA story.  It's not fair that NPR, On the Media, and Sarah Abdurrahman get to illegitimately and illegally benefit from my efforts.

Update one, March 8th: On the Media's Katya Rogers posted a response on their web site.  Rather than apologizing, they distort the situation and mock me.  They've just thrown a bucket of gasoline on this fire, and made it clear they have no intention of apologizing for either their ethical violations or their legal violations.  They even blame me for the situation because I didn't want to be interviewed for their story.  Since when does a refusal to be interviewed translate as, "Instead, just steal my work without attribution"?  As is often done by people who dislike me, I am dismissively referred to as "someone calling herself 'Furry Girl'," to draw attention to my pseudonym as a means to discredit me or make me seem unreliable.  (Wait, but if I'm such a fake person who can't be trusted, why did they so desperately want me to be on their radio show, and why did they do a story on me?)  NPR is particularly incensed and calls it "seriously beyond the pale" that I would dare to call out by name the journalist who stole my work.  Oh, so that's the game?  You don't want it showing up in Google that NPR, On the Media, and Sarah Abdurrahman engage in content theft from a blogger?  Thanks for telling me how to proceed!

Update two, March 8th: This is something of a sidenote, but I feel it's worth sharing.  A friend of mine posted a comment on On the Media's web site, which they manually edited.  They didn't just delete a comment they didn't like in its entirely, they de-clawed his argument to make themselves look better.  His comment linked to my blog as a reference for what I've actually said, which is in contrast to their twisting of what transpired.  On the Media's comment policy does not bar commenters from posting links.  This was a manual, selective edit of one person's comment to make NPR look better.

Update three, March 11th: After talking to some lawyers and people who follow copyright enforcement issues, on a financial level, it's sadly just not worth it to sue NPR.  The problem is that it would cost me a huge amount of money in legal fees to get what would surely be only a small monetary settlement.  For me, it's not about money, it's about the point that I require attribution, but no attorney wants to launch a federal copyright case on the hopes of getting a portion of what... $50?  $500?  It drives me up the wall that NPR can do whatever the hell it wants, violate any sense of journalistic ethics, no doubt knowing that any court settlement they'd have to pay out wouldn't be worth it to me to fight for.  The professional media wins, the small blogger they're stealing from loses, simply because I don't their kind of audience and money.  (And it stings extra that we, as American taxpayers, subsidize NPR.  They're using my money to screw me over, and I don't have enough money to fight back.)

I will not be publishing comments from the NPR apologists (or employees?) who are starting to find their way to my blog.  You can go fawn over NPR on their own web site, you don't get to take up space on my server to defend their shitty behavior.





13 Comments

  1. I'm sorry you're having to deal with all that. I've done a lot of volunteering myself and while I don't want remuneration I do expect that others make the effort to cite/acknowledge my work just as I do theirs. The alternative is that no one cites anything any more, and all IP evaporates. If they can convince the RIAA/MPAA/Publishing to go along with that, I guess I'll let them use my stuff in return.

    Your FOIA piece actually inspired me to do my own records search (something I'd thought about for years, but not gotten around to). Unfortunately I was too late to the party and received blanket dismissals (ie we no longer have to release anything to private citizens) from all agencies but the Secret Service.

    Comment by Kristin Guttormsen — March 7, 2012 @ 12:56 am

  2. I've enjoyed listening to 'On The Media' for years, but this really demonstrates their producers' hypocrisy. It's the kind of abusive reporting tactic that On The Media itself reports on to educate its listeners on the fine points of journalistic ethics. How ironic!

    This goes way beyond sloppy reporting by 'On The Media'. Furry Girl did a great reporting job on her original FBI FOIA story--and about the hypocrisy of 'On The Media' for using another reporter's work without any attribution. I'll never listen to 'On The Media' the same way again..

    Comment by bernieS — March 7, 2012 @ 1:13 am

  3. Auggggh. Thank you for exposing this, at least.

    Comment by JW — March 7, 2012 @ 10:10 am

  4. Don't know if it is doable or not, but start a kickstarter for a legal fund? then sue them ?

    Comment by darius — March 7, 2012 @ 9:01 pm

  5. Maybe you're too hetero for NPR, that's why it censored your name?

    As a "non-profit" corporation (with massive profits from govt welfare), NPR lawyers claim thay are immune to Creative Commons copyright claims. After all, They don't technically make a profit, do They?

    History Channel "stole" my web research, then censored and spun it knowing the majority of sheeple won't fact-check, but at least listed my name and URLs on the TV show (while NBC Datelinme's Lester Holt, Popular Mechanics and guest slandered me profusely).

    Thanks to you, I want to FOIA myself. Hopefully without the blanket denials requiring litigation.

    Comment by Flight 93 — March 8, 2012 @ 4:23 am

  6. Did you read On the Media's response?
    http://www.onthemedia.org/response/

    Comment by Vas — March 8, 2012 @ 2:53 pm

  7. Its funny, as both a long time reader of feminist and listener of on the media to see these two worlds collides like this. From all the evidence presented I have to side with otm though, they seem to make a more reasoned and calm argument. My two cents.

    Comment by Ghost1 — March 10, 2012 @ 3:40 pm

  8. Ghost1: It's easy for NPR to be the "calm argument" when they're the ones smugly stealing from me. If I calmly walked up to you and punched you in the face, and you expressed emotion about it, I could just as easily claim that your side is wrong. Calmness is not the same thing is being ethical, legal, or right.

    Comment by Furry Girl — March 10, 2012 @ 4:23 pm

  9. Regarding legal action: I'm no lawyer, but isn't the defendant ordered to pay legal fees if the plaintiff wins the case?

    Comment by DataSnake — March 12, 2012 @ 6:00 am

  10. Hi,
    I happened across this and your earlier post via Twitter, so I sent a comment to On the Media through their website pointing out that their actions and response never acted to respect the attribution requirement of your Creative Commons license. I don't know if it'll help, but figured they should at least have it pointed out to them that they're acting awfully high on their metaphorical horse for the lack of diligence they put into their actions in this case.

    Comment by Josh — March 12, 2012 @ 7:11 am

  11. @ DataSnake - Not always, and when they are it doesn't always end up covering all of it. Also, many times you have to pay up front (at least a reasonable portion) to be reimbursed if you win. Since it's fairly easy for powerful people or groups/companies to stretch cases out for a decade or more it's not unreasonable to expect a big case to quickly require 5-6 figures to keep rolling...and it all hinges on luck rather you'll win or not.

    Comment by Kristin Guttormsen — March 13, 2012 @ 4:45 am

  12. Interesting and I will review this later.

    Meanwhile, we customarily make contributions to WCPN, WKSU and WVIZ. I am disinclined to do so this year because of this. However, in explication, do I have your permission to send them this blog post?

    Comment by Roy Kay — March 25, 2012 @ 7:09 am

  13. Hello,

    I would like to thank you as your website was the first result on Google using the keywords "History Channel stole my research".

    I need your help!

    The History Channel stole my research too!

    I made a video over 3 years ago about The Georgia Guidestones regarding my discovery on how it was linked to the Order of the Rosicrucian's. Last year the History Channel made a documentary on the Georgia Guidestones, the guy who stole my research and who created the documentary for the History Channel is called Brad Meltzer.

    I sent him a tweet, no reply.

    He did not give me credit, ask my permission, nothing.

    If you do a Google Search, my videos (3 parts long), is the first ever video that shows this discovery. It is obvious that he stole it and I am furious, especially because it is the History Channel, a commercial entity.

    Please help me, I do not know what steps to take. I want to sue this guy for doing this to me, it is not fair that I spent a long time researching this and he steals it on me. I have never had anything like this happen to me before.

    In need of your help,
    cdenver

    Comment by cdenver — April 24, 2012 @ 5:06 pm

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