Thursday, February 16, 2012

On Intellectual Property (Part 2/2)

Protecting Your Property

I've had both amusing and dismaying experiences in which people have misappropriated my intellectual property. Let me share some of those experiences with you so you can be alert for similar problems with your own creations.

I once read an article about the technique of software inspection in a respected software journal. The author was a man of unimpeachable integrity, a titan of the software industry whom I admire greatly. Someone else, who I didn’t know, had written a two-page sidebar in the article that presented an overview of software peer reviews. As I read the sidebar, I found myself agreeing with what it said. Then I realized why: I wrote it!

This sidebar was a condensation and paraphrasing of an article I had published in a different magazine in 1995. However, the author of the sidebar didn't cite my article and didn't have permission from either me or the magazine for this adaptation. I easily convinced the journal's editor of the similarities between my article and the sidebar. The editor issued a clarification and apology in the next issue of the journal. I also wrote to the author of the sidebar, but she never replied. Had the author contacted me and asked about presenting this summary, with due credit given to the original source, I would have said fine. Instead, she simply took my material, rephrased it somewhat, and presented it as her own. That's not fine.

On another occasion I was sitting with a friend at a conference. The speaker was talking about some aspect of software requirements. He showed a slide and said, "I'm not sure where I found this." My friend grinned at me and said, "I think I know." The slide was pulled out of one of my training courses. This was curious, because I had never taught that course at the speaker's company, so I'm not sure how he got it. After the talk, I told him where that slide came from. He apologized, but I told him he could go ahead and use it if he added a reference to the source.

I keep an eye on how my intellectual property is misused not because of ego, of making sure that I always get full "credit" for anything I've ever said or written. Instead, it's a matter of making sure that the intellectual property from which I earn a living remains my property. Very recently, I discovered copies of one of my magazine articles posted on three other websites. On one, no author was listed, implying that the owner of the web site wrote the piece. I called the web site owner and he agreed to add my name as the author. On the other two sites, different people had put their own names as author, although the article was lifted nearly verbatim from my site. I find these kinds of violations periodically. It’s quite irritating to have other people claim my work as their own.

Some years ago I received an e-mail from a woman I didn't know, asking if my Software Requirements book was now in the public domain. It was not. She had spotted an article that clearly was cribbed from my requirements book, which wasn’t mentioned. I contacted the author and discovered that this was the first of three articles, indeed drawn from my book, without citation and without permission. The author was not an American. He told me that summarizing another author's work like this is considered a compliment in his country. I told him it was considered plagiarism in the United States. It was too late to withdraw part two of the series from the publication cycle, but we got my name listed as a co-author for part three, along with the reference to my book. I'm not trying to be mean here, but I do have to protect the material that I have created—with considerable effort—so that the ownership, and revenues ensuing therefrom, remain mine.

Here's another interesting example of misappropriation. Several years ago I discovered a website from another country that had reposted numerous articles published in Software Development magazine, including several of mine. One problem was that the people who created this website had not obtained permission from the publisher of Software Development or the authors of the individual articles to post these articles. Another problem was that they had moved the original author's name to the fine print at the end of each article, putting someone else's name at the top so it looked like this other person wrote it. I worked with the original magazine’s publisher to get that website to halt this unethical practice. I've also found numerous discussion boards in which people freely distribute electronic copies of copyrighted books, including mine. This is unethical, illegal, and far too common.

The Funniest Case

For many years, I've made document templates, checklists, and other process materials available for downloading from the Process Impact Goodies web page. Some years ago I stumbled onto another consultant's site that had a similar set of downloadable items. Too similar, in fact. The boilerplate text on his page was lifted verbatim from my Goodies page, and about half of the items he had available for downloading also were from my page. ( is a website that lets you search for text copied from your web site.) He did identify these items as being mine, but he hadn't asked me for permission to use them in this fashion.

When I contacted the consultant to inquire about this situation, he ignored me. I tried again. This time he replied but pushed back against my request that he remove my materials from his site. The guy said, "You don't have to be a [rude term] about it." Oh, great, I thought: name-calling escalation. He takes my material without permission and I'm the [rude term]? Ultimately, he apologized for that comment and complied with my request.

The funny part? This dude's company name included the word "maverick," and he had a dictionary definition of maverick at the top of each page on his web site: "someone who exhibits great independence in thought and action." Uh-huh.

(If you found this article helpful, please consider making a donation to the Norm Kerth Benefit Fund to help a consultant who has been disabled since 1999 with a traumatic brain injury from a car accident. You can read Norm's story or donate here. Thanks!)


  1. Enjoyed that. Have you thought of publishing these articles on other sites such as BA times ?

  2. Karl,
    I'm amazed at how many times I've walked into firms and found our course binders on their bookshelves, yet they hadn't been a customer of our training services. Our copyright information is clearly marked along with permissions requirements. It's rather sobering - the battle that you need to wage against IP violators.

    Thanks for the entertaining post.