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Friday Philosophy – Content, Copying, Copyright &Theft

There have been a couple of things this week that have made me think about the stuff that some of us write and what other people do with it.

I’m writing a book with 4 other people at the moment (the 4 being Arup Nanda, Brendan Tierney, Alex Nuijten and Heli Helskyaho, all experienced book publishers already – I’m the new kid) which is on SQL & PLSQL. It has been a very interesting experience. I knew writing a technical book was hard work, took a lot of time and that, frankly, the direct financial return on the effort is very, very poor. I know a few authors of Oracle books and I’d talked to them about it all, so I was aware. However, it turns out I did not really know how hard it was, I still did not understand how demanding of time and effort it was! But I had written technical blogs and a couple of articles before I started the book and I had developed the strong opinion that you do not take other people’s work, and you certainly do not take it without citing the original author – because you are actually stealing a lot of someone else’s time and effort.

Probable  front image of

Probable front image of “the book”

As a result, at the very start of writing my chapters I was determined that my content was going to be My Content. Me, my experience, the official documentation , my test databases – and a word document to receive the end product from those ingredients. I was not going to read what others had written recently on or around the topics I was covering as I did not want to be even subconsciously borrowing from other’s efforts {I say recently as I cannot unread what I had already read!}. I certainly did not want to be accused of doing so. If I was going to object to people stealing my content, I’d be hypocritical to actually commit the crime.

How very noble of me. How very silly of me.

A couple of months in I was talking to someone about the first chapter I was doing and how I was struggling to decide how to structure what I wanted to say. I knew the facts and features I wanted to cover but was unsure of how to make it flow so that it would make sense to the reader and build up their knowledge in steps. They asked me how other people had handled it and I gave them the little opinion piece I’ve just given you. And they laughed at me.
Was I including new stuff? Yes. Was I using my own experience? Yes. Was I going to cut lines, paragraphs, even pages out of other sources and put it in mine? No! Of course not! Well then why was I purposefully making life hard for myself?
Then they asked me the killer bit – Did I know every last thing about the topic? Hmm, no, probably not, but then no one knows every last thing and certainly has not used every little aspect of an oracle feature for real. So I was only going to put into my chapters parts of the topic? Well, I guess so. And that is what someone trying to learn about the feature wants? An expert opinion full of holes? That bit stumped me.

I was kind of writing my chapters to show how much I know. I was certainly limiting it to what I knew well. But the reader does not give a fig about how much I personally know, they are not hiring me to do a job. They are reading about a technical topic so that they can do their job. So I should be making sure I know as much as I can about the topic in order to describe it and I should describe all of it that I think could be useful to others, even if so far it has not been of use to me and the specifics of the problems I was solving. And how do I learn about technical stuff? I read the documentation… and blogs… and books… and play with it.

It also got me thinking about what I will feel like if people use my chapters in a couple of years to help them write about a topic (be it in a book, a blog or an article). If they simply copy my stuff, steal my words, I’ll be angry. If they copy it but just change a few bits to hide the fact I’ll be furious. But if they are writing this as they initially learned from me and then added their own experience and knowledge, I’ll be chuffed to bits – because I taught them. And now they would be teaching others.

So I started reading my modern books on the topics around what I was writing and looking at blog posts and articles more. I know I am doing a better job for the audience since I started doing that. However, the list of people I will need to thank in my bit of the acknowledgements is going up & up and I suspect that for years I’ll be meeting people at conferences & meetings and going “here’s a pint for the help you gave me! And, no, you did not know you had!”. {One thing that did worry the pants off me is that when I read around, it turns out that in my first chapter I uses an example very extensively that turns out to be the exact same example at least two other people have used – it’s convergent evolution, honest! But I’m sure someone at some point is going to point a finger… Oh well, the deadlines are too tight for me to change it now. I don’t even have time to write this blog really…}

There was a specific incident this week that made me think again about copying. I noticed (as I was checking out a relatively unused aspect of a PL/SQL tool and what I did not know about it – but others might benefit from knowing) that the same information was in two places. Exactly the same, word for word. Someone had stolen content from Tim Hall’s excellent Oraclebase site. And it was not just one article, it was dozens, with no citation of the original author anywhere and a copyright sign on the pages of stolen content. You can read about Tim’s ire in this blog post he wrote. He got more annoyed than I think he normally does as this guy had stolen stuff before and Tim was suffering from a cold. He got about as annoyed as I would get in that situation, in fact.

I also noticed as I investigated my currently-obscure aspect of PL/SQL that most of the content on the topic elsewhere was mostly chunks just taken from the oracle official documentation with a few lines wrapped around each chunk. Was that stealing content? I’m still not sure about that, but I think that if there is more borrowed content than original content, it’s at best Poor Effort and probably is Theft. If they do not even write their own demo code for the feature but take Oracle’s – it’s theft. Bad people.

I did nearly comment on Twitter that I never got my stuff stolen, as my stuff is mostly just opinion pieces like this and of no technical worth! But the very next day – Yep, you guessed it, someone stole one of my blog posts. There was a single link back to my original post at the very end but it was not a citation, it just said “reference Link Martin Widlake’s”. In fact, initially I think it just said “Reference Link”. He also has a copyright sign on his web pages. I currently don’t, maybe I should add one so that I can simply say “copyright, take it off else i’ll issue a Take Down request to your service provider”.

I’ve emailed him to say I’m not happy to have a word-for-word copy stolen and presented as his and I am certainly not happy that the pieces is appearing on the front of his web site advertising his services! It seems he is just one guy trying to make a living in rural Northern Pakistan. Should I be concerned about the theft of my article and ask him to remove it? If it is helping him make a living thousands of miles away and he has at least added a small citation at the end? Yes, because it is still theft. And if I do not highlight to him how much this annoys people, he will probably steal other stuff. If you don’t challenge bad behaviour you condone it.

And besides, if he does steal more stuff this will certainly include Tim’s material as his site is often on the first search-engine page on any Oracle Topic. And when he pinches Tim’s stuff, Tim’s gonna be angry…