The power of social media was on full display this past week, as the unauthorized publication of a recipe for apple pie drew a quick and virulent online response. The story begins on November 3, when blogger Monica Gaudio announced on her blog that Cooks Source, a small New England magazine, had republished an article on the history of apple pie (she had previously written it for another publication) without permission. While Gaudio was credited for her work, she never consented to, nor was she compensated for, the use of the article. After emailing the magazine’s editor, Gaudio received a response informing her that the internet is “public domain”. The email, which Gaudio published on her blog, sparked a fierce response from an online community that quickly coalesced on Facebook to disparage the magazine’s conduct.

Contrary to what Gaudio was told, works are not considered to be in the public domain simply because they are published on the internet. Rather, works are considered to be in the public domain if they are not protected by intellectual property rights, if such rights have expired or if the rights have been forfeited. The fact that a work is published on the internet rather than on paper does not change the definition of the public domain and, while there are public domain works on the internet, such works are not in the public domain simply because of their publication on the Internet.

Under the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works and the Copyright Act (Canada), copyright protection is automatically provided to a work as soon as the original work is written down, recorded or entered as a computer file. Under the “fair dealing” provisions of the Copyright Act, individuals may use original works without infringing upon the works’ copyright only if used for specific purposes: criticism and review, news reporting, and private study or research. The Copyright Act also exempts certain categories of users, such as non-profit educational institutions. Republishing a work that first appeared on the internet does not provide for a fair dealing exception simply because the work first appeared online.

Beyond the public domain issues, the Cooks Source case also provides a good example of the power and influence that social media can have on a business. As discussed above, online reaction to allegations of copyright infringement was swift, with Cooks Source’s Facebook page quickly overrun with derogatory posts. According to a statement by Cooks Source, its Facebook page was hacked and fake Facebook and Twitter accounts were created to spread word of the uproar. Facebook users also began publishing links to other articles that Cooks Source had allegedly copied, and a list of the magazine’s advertisers was soon posted online (with contact information), prompting Cooks Source to issue a plea that users stop bombarding their advertisers with “distasteful messages”.

In this age of social media, therefore, businesses must be more careful than ever to ensure the propriety of their actions to avoid the type of response seen in this case. While Cooks Source may be a small regional magazine, the response to its actions came from across the online universe and the story was widely reported in the mainstream press. Thus, while the internet and social media can be invaluable in building a business and a brand, this case provides an example of how powerful social media can be when going the other direction.