Wrap Up: The Scholastic Plagiarism Case

Wrap Up: The Scholastic Plagiarism Case Image

On Saturday, May 1st, the Web became engulfed in the story of an artist named Wenqing Yan, who had posted a plea for help on her DeviantArt account.

According to Yan, she had discovered that another artist, named Kasey Bowman, had submitted a painting of hers entitled “Selfish” to the Alliance for Young Artists and Writers Competition and had won two gold awards. Yan attempted to contact the competition to inform them of the infringement via their DMCA procedure but her letter went ignored for a month, prompting her to post her public plea.

The story took off like a rocket, reaching the front page of Reddit and generating thousands of page views. Even this site, which was only linked in the comments of the original Reddit post, saw a jump in traffic. Scholastic’s Facebook page for the contest was also affected, though it has since been cleaned up.

Eventually, Scholastic did resolve the issue. They informed the public and Yan that the awards had been revoked, the image had been pulled from the site and Bowman had admitted to the plagiarism.

The representative also went on to say that the rumors of a cash award for the contest were untrue and that they believe this to be an isolated incident. They also encouraged others to stop harassing the accused girl.

But while the story seems to have a happy ending, there are a lot of unanswered questions about how this could have been avoided and how it could have been handled better. There are lessons in this case for everyone involved, including artists and Web hosts.

Communication Breakdown

Prior to the controversy, the information on Scholastic’s Terms of Use page was relatively thin on matters of copyright. At the time, it read as the following:

Legal Department
Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Inc.
557 Broadway ” Room ______
New York, NY 10012
Or send us your written communication by facsimile to: [FAX Number]

To be clear, these are not redactions I made, but rather, were placeholders for information that had not been added by Scholastic. The postal address was incomplete, though now it simply says “557 Broadway” with no mention of a room number, and the fax was blank.

To call this sloppy is an understatement, but that was not Scholastic’s only Mistake.

The bigger mistake was that Yan had sent an email to Scholastic using their info@ account, supposedly with the required elements for a DMCA. However, after over a month, there was no response. Though the info@ account is clearly not the correct email, it was the best Yan could find and, theoretically, the person checking that account should have forwarded it along, especially considering the severity of the accusations.

There is simply no nice way to say it. Scholastic dropped the ball, not once, but twice in its handling of this.

An Interesting Twist

As I researched this case a bit deeper, I found an interesting twist that makes me wonder even more about what could have been done to avoid this. It turns out that Scholastic properly designated a DMCA agent with the U.S. Copyright Office. You can find the PDF here.

The filing at the USCO has the name, email, fax number, phone number and postal address for the DMCA agent at Scholastic. Though the email is borderline illegible, the other information is very clear. At first I thought that Yan was simply unaware of this option and had overlooked this means of finding the contact information, but I then noticed the dates on the filing.

The USCO received the filing on March 15 of this year and had just posted it April 23, about two weeks ago and well after Yan first attempted to contact Scholastic. This meant that, even if Yan had gone to the USCO for the information, it would not have been there.

It appears, at least likely, that much of this entire debacle was caused by the USCO taking over a month to post a scanned PDF on their site. Just another case of fail from the U.S. Copyright Office.

My Personal Experience

In dealing with plagiarists of my own content, I’ve had to deal with several who had submitted my poetry to literary contests and scholarships. Those incidents were always unfortunate but usually very easy to deal with. In fact, in none of them did I even have to use a copyright lever, just simply contact the contest organizers, show them that the work was plagiarized and the matter was handled quickly.

And that is my real question about this case: Why was the DMCA involved at all?

Yes, Scholastic needs the protections of the DMCA and the law clearly applies, but when you’re dealing with a contest like this, there is much more at stake for Scholastic than just copyright liability. Yes, it is important, but so is the reputation of the contest and that can be destroyed by a major plagiarism scandal, such as this one.

The real mistake that Scholastic made here was looking at this matter as a copyright issue when it was more of an integrity and honesty issue. While it is crucial to cover yourself from liability, you have to protect other elements as well and that is what Scholastic clearly failed to do.

Bottom Line

To call this situation a mess is a great understatement and nearly all of it was caused by Scholastic. Between the incomplete contact information on their site, the ignoring of the sent email and waiting to designate their agent with the USCO, they created a perfect storm for something like this to happen.

They needed a little help from the USCO to delay posting of a simple scanned form for a month (though that is actually fast for that kind of form and even faster considering it takes nine months to process an electronic copyright registration), Scholastic only has their own bungling to blame for this.

The good news is that they’re going to take a nasty reputation bruising, which may seriously hurt that particular contest, but they won’t face any legal consequences from all appearances. The artist infringed does not seem to be taking any steps to sue either Scholastic or the plagiarist and has actually dropped the case.

Others, however, might not be so lucky. Such a string of missteps could prove very costly to a Web host or other site, especially if they cross swords with one of the major content industries.

This case should serve as a warning for sites to take these issues seriously and have a plan in place for dealing with copyright infringement, before things hit the fan.

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