Author’s Note: While I disagree in the strongest terms possible with any suggestion that the disputed work(s) constituted plagiarism or copyright infringement, I did violate Medium’s rules and therefore my suspension was justified. I sincerely apologize to anyone who was offended or negatively impacted in any way. I would like to thank Ev Williams and the Medium staff who saw fit to reinstate my account with no preconditions other than I not violate Medium’s rules in the future. In retrospect, though the process was far from perfect, it was handled professionally, and with care for both my accuser’s and my own due process rights. Overall, I can find little fault with it but for one (really big and potentially dangerous) exception which is detailed below. Out of respect for the privacy of all parties involved any and all names of persons, or titles of articles, or anything that could be linked back to the original dispute have been redacted or omitted.
Some of the blame has to go to my personal email inbox. It had fallen in to such a sad state of disrepair (written about previously) that I had basically stopped all but the most cursory glances every few weeks. Turns out I had missed a series of emails from Medium informing me that there had been “a complaint” lodged about a parody article I had published almost two months earlier. Another series of emails informed me that I had been accused of a violation of the DMCA (digital millennium copyrights act) presumably by the same person who had complained about the parody article. If you have no idea what the DMCA is, then you and I do (or did) have something in common. A link to the full text of the act can be found here on a page where previously existed a rant of biblical proportions directed at Medium and their safety and trust committee, the arm of the Medium corporation entrusted with ensuring that their own copyright and DMCA policy (which can be found here) is enforced. The DMCA is complex, and interpretations of it are as varied as opinions about it, however, the intention of this post is not to debate its merits (some) and demerits (many). What is important about it for purposes of this piece is that I had been accused of a copyright violation, and the DMCA was cited as justification. It took me quite some time (a few days of thinking and reading) to fully comprehend what that meant and the potential consequences.
Suffice to say the effect was powerful and chilling. If my accuser was highly motivated and had deep pockets I could find myself served with papers requiring me to appear in court and face possible civil and even criminal sanction.
From what I had read and understood jail time was a possible, though highly unlikely, outcome. At the very least there would be a devastating impact to my personal reputation, and I would likely be on the hook for thousands of dollars in legal bills and fines if found guilty, or even if cleared of all charges.
I had worked myself into a full fledged panic, but I was also angry, very, very, very angry. Copyright violation is another way of saying plagiarism, possibly the worst crime one can commit as a writer. For those of you who have read any of my works published here (highly unlikely judging by my readership stats) you will recognize that the parody/satire genre is one I have frequented since almost day one of my almost 4 year now residence on the site. One of my favorite parody forms was to take an article someone else had written that I found particularly dull or ridiculous or banal (or sometimes an article I found particularly insightful or interesting or awesome) and flip it on its head completely. Basically reverse it, or seriously skew it, like a funhouse mirror version of the original piece. Usually I would do this by going through the original article (starting with the title) and changing each and every line in sometimes very subtle ways. The trick is to maintain the exact same tone as the original piece while completely distorting the content. The overarching goal of the entire enterprise is to be humorous, to make the reader chuckle, or at least bring a smile to their face. It is no easy task, and I spent hours or even days on many of these parody pieces. I always linked back to the original article at the very top of every parody piece and I (almost) always gave props to the author in one way or another through claps or comments or whatever.
To me the parody pieces were a form of praise, and I received many encouraging comments from authors whose works I had used as subjects for my parodies. It also seemed like good business as these articles were always popular (for me popular, which means not very), but likely also drove traffic to the original article and provided some free publicity for the author. A win win for everyone involved. Sometimes, I would leave chunks of the original text intact or include figures that were part of the original article. This was always kept to a bare minimum, and always done with the utmost care and with the intent of maximizing the humorous aspects of the piece. In my view, to suggest that any of my parody articles were plagiarism was outrageous in the extreme, and it seemed beyond obvious that the principle of “fair use” applied in each and every case. It did not even seem a close call.
The bottom line however is that it doesn’t really matter what I think, only what a lawyer can convince a judge or jury to think, and I was still very afraid of the possibility that a committed and wealthy aggrieved writer from the site could find a way to completely destroy my life from top to bottom.
And for a time that seemed a real possibility. In addition to the DMCA “rules” Medium has their own rules with respect to copyright infringement/plagiarism. In most cases they overlap, but in some areas Medium goes even further than DMCA. So, even if a particular piece would easily survive with a fair use argument in court, that does not necessarily mean you are off the hook. And make no mistake, Medium makes the rules here, and they interpret them, and they enforce them, and rightly so as they do own this website. You will not win an argument with Medium about a particular Medium rule, you cannot. It is best to accept this and deal with it. Raging against it or trying to fight it will not get you very far as I discovered for myself very quickly. Within a few weeks of my first response to the initial complaint email, a suspension ruling came down from Medium and I was officially barred from the site for a rules violation.
Meanwhile online my accuser had begun an attack campaign against my writings that led to a virtual lynch mob forming. I was only made aware of this through various friends who were/are writers on the site and my wife who had been monitoring the activity in the comments of an article written by my accuser in which the accusations against my parody piece were spelled out. Two things became crystal clear immediately. First, the large majority of the persons who were commenting on the affair had not taken the time to read or even look at the parody piece in question. (To this day I am not even sure my accuser had actually read it. This is one of the most baffling issues from my perspective. Repeatedly my accuser suggests the article I published only changed the title of the original piece they had written, and left the entirety of the remainder of the article untouched. That is obviously absurd in the extreme and not something I would ever even think of doing. Who would? and why? I still have no clue where this strange notion came from and the only explanation that makes sense is that they never actually read the article.) Second, people can be very, very nasty. It got ugly fast. There were threats of or allusions to violence posted against myself and my family. Accusations of sexism began to creep into the discussion. Apparently I only “targeted” female writers with my parody pieces. (targeted is in quotation marks because these articles were not attacks, or at least they were not intended to be). This claim could easily be proved false with only about five minutes of Google searching had anyone bothered. A Facebook page was started with the express intent of facilitating the sharing of information about myself that could not be shared on Medium. Presumably this could include personal information. In order that we might have some evidence with which to ask for legal or even police protection my wife began to capture screen shots of the discussion happening in the comments thread. In addition to being the love of my life, she happens to be a previous victim of domestic violence, and had a psychopathic stalker in her not too distant past. Suffice to say she was horrified and scared, very scared. She has gone to extraordinary lengths to escape that history of violence including the erasure of her birth name, so even the suggestion of possible violence or that personal information about her might find its way into a public forum was terrifying. I was more than a little concerned myself and, as it turned out, our fears were seemingly justified.
One of the reasons we were so afraid relates to a very important element I left out of my description above of the initial emails I received from Medium on the matter. See below for a screen capture of the email in question. (redacted portion indicated, bolding and italics are mine). The email described the steps required to file a counter notice to the DMCA notification. This counter notice was the only option available to present my side of the story with respect to the complaint so I absolutely intended to provide one.
Notice item #4. In order to file a counter notice I needed to provide my name, address, and telephone number. At the time the importance and potential consequences of doing this never crossed my mind. The only thing I was thinking of was how angry I was, and how quickly could I get this whole mess straightened out and things back to normal again. Only later, when the threats began online, and it was made clear that my accuser had my home address did I understand the ramifications. Naively I had assumed that only Medium would retain this information however, unbeknownst to me at the time, apparently the DMCA required Medium to provide my address to my accuser so that I could accept a service of process from them or their representative should they choose to proceed with a law suit. In a later series of correspondences on the matter Medium claimed, and I believe them, that they stressed the importance of keeping all of my personal information confidential to my accuser, and informed them that if they broke confidentiality they would be permanently barred from the site. However, comments in the discussion thread including some from my accuser suggested otherwise. With threats of violence, and my home address possibly known and given out to who knows how many other persons, we were now in full fledged panic mode. We seriously considered turning over evidence, including the captured screen shots, to our state’s attorney general, and asking for police protection. We bought a very large dog, and generally lived life like we could be attacked at any moment. We made arrangements to accelerate our move out of our current residence and hunkered down waiting for something terrible to happen. It sucked, to put things as succinctly as I can.
Fortunately, though we were both looking over shoulders and jumping at shadows for about a month after, nothing ever did come of the threats. I was never served with a summons, and no infringement case was pursued. We moved to our new home, and basically tried to put the whole thing behind us. Fast forward to almost one year later when, to my great delight, a formal written request for account reinstatement was accepted. As part of the account reinstatement request I offered to write an article detailing what happened so that others might learn from my own mistakes. I even offered to give Medium editors the ability to review the article before publication, and to have veto power over any section(s) with which they had objections. To their great credit, they did not take me up on this offer, and there were no preconditions other than the very reasonable “do not break Medium site rules again.”
While I was determined to see this episode detailed in writing and published here, my wife was/is very much against the whole idea. She is still furiously angry about the entire affair, and holds a serious grudge against my accuser and Medium which it appears she will never let go. She also suggests, and is likely correct, that there is some risk in publishing this. What if it stokes old wounds, or what if Medium disapproves and they suspend you again, or even ban you for life? I think the risk of either is quite low. My accuser and those who were set against me by them, like myself, have no doubt moved on. In truth, the dustup probably only affected at most fifty peoples lives in even the slightest. Bottom line is I just am not that important to warrant that much attention or for any one to care that much about what happens to me.
That is one of the lessons I take away from this entire fiasco. A re-emphasis on just how small one life really is in the grand scheme. How unimportant each of us as individuals really are. To oneself, ones problems, ones day to day stuff seems so massive, so consequential, so earth shattering, but they are invisible to 99.99999% of everyone else, and worth no more than a shrug to 0.0000005%. To the remaining 0.0000005% who are affected, well, they have there own 0.0000005% to worry about.
Finally, the most important lesson for myself, was a reminder of just how much I love it here. How much I love writing here. I was genuinely shocked by how much I missed it when I could no longer write and publish here. In the end this is why I can never, could never hold a grudge against this place. For myself, Medium has been a lifeline. It saved me after the death of my beautiful wife Victoria, and thought I could never be whole again, and it keeps on saving me each and every time I return here to write and publish something else. For that, I owe Ev Williams, and his team at Medium a debt of gratitude I could never repay. I tip my hat to them. I am not sure they realize it, but they have built something truly special with Medium, and I want to be a part of it for as long as they will continue to let me. Don’t do what I did. Read the site rules, understand them, follow them. If you object to them let it be known if you want, but until they are changed you are stuck with them. Of course, you are always free to go elsewhere, but speaking from experience the grass is always greener…..