Small vs. big on copyright

n National Wildlife Federation, John Gile, Tom Heflin involved in copyright infringement incident

One of the nation’s largest environmental organizations, the National Wildlife Federation, which in 2002 claimed more than 4 million members and $115 million in revenue, said it made a “mistake” by “excerpting extensive portions” of a copyrighted book by Rockford locals, author John Gile and artist Tom Heflin, without permission.

Gile asserted the Federation did much more than make a mistake when 547,000 copies of the unauthorized excerpted version of his book The First Forest was published last December in the Federation’s magazine for children, Your Big Backyard. Gile alleged the Federation changed the primary message of the story, which he said may have harmed the marketability of his commercially successful and acclaimed book and denied him a large amount of money in royalties.

Gile lives in Rockford and is the author of three books that have made North American best-seller lists and is a frequent speaker at education conferences. Heflin is a popular Midwest artist who lives just outside Rockford and has exhibited paintings in Chicago, New York, Seattle, Dallas and other cities. Heflin painted 18 pieces for Gile’s book. Gile has held the copyrights for both the text and the illustrations in the book since 1989.

When contacted July 11, Ben McNitt, acting vice president of communications for the Virginia-based conservation group, read a prepared press release and emphasized the Federation’s desire to fairly compensate Gile. However, McNitt added the organization is “prepared to accept a judicial settlement.”

Gile countered that the Federation’s offer falls far short of what is fair. Gile said he never would have given permission to the Federation to alter and omit portions of the book.

According to the Federation, Your Big Backyard was distributed in the United States and Canada. Gile estimated the magazine’s readership may be as high as 5 million people.

According to Scholastic of Canada, the book is a “…unique fable—exquisitely illustrated—tells what happens when greed spoils the beauty and peace of the very first, perfect forest…[and] encourages us all to share, to respect others, and much more.”

Ironically, the inside cover of Gile’s book reads: “Briefly stated, what I want children and adult readers to come away with [by reading the book] is a more generous, trusting sharing spirit. The First Forest reminds us that greed and selfishness are harmful and that peace and harmony flow from an attitude of grateful appreciation for the gifts we receive and a respect for the need and right of others to share in those gifts, also.”

McNitt’s statement reads, “The December 2002 edition of the National Wildlife Federation’s magazine Your Big Backyard excerpted extensive portions of John Gile’s book The First Forest.

“Through an inadvertent error on our part, the National Wildlife Federation printed the material without first obtaining copyright permission from Mr. Gile.

“We made a mistake. We acknowledge that mistake and have told Mr. Gile we are prepared to compensate him fairly for that mistake.

“The National Wildlife Federation has the highest respect for the writers, photographers and artists who contribute to our publications. We deal with them fairly. We deeply regret the mistake we made concerning The First Forest and are ready to compensate Mr. Gile fairly for it.

“Since last December, the National Wildlife Federation has offered to make a public apology to Mr. Gile, to pay him a sum several times greater than the going rate for reprint rights, to publish an advertisement in two consecutive editions of Your Big Backyard for his books, to place a pop-up advertisement for his books in the kids’ section of our Internet site, to publish a full page advertisement for his books in National Wildlife magazine, and to purchase and distribute several hundred copies of The First Forest. This offer is cumulative in nature.

“We would hope this matter could be resolved by a reasonable settlement but are prepared to accept a judicial determination,” said the Federation’s statement.

When asked if the Federation used other copyrighted material without permission from different authors and artists, McNitt said he was not aware of any similar incident but couldn’t categorically deny that similar infringements had not occurred.

The Federation’s Web site contains the following statement concerning copyright infringement: “NWF respects the intellectual property of others. If you believe that your copyrighted work has been copied on the Site or any NWF-maintained bulletin board, chat room, or list serv [sic] in a way that constitutes copyright infringement, please notify us by following our Procedure for Making Claims of Copyright Infringement.”

Gile gave a point-by-point explanation of why he rejected the Federation’s offer:

1. Concerning the Federation’s public apology, Gile asks, “Why did it take them nine months to apologize? They didn’t make the apology until you guys [The Rock River Times] called them.” McNitt said as of July 11, The Rock River Times was the only media outlet to inquire about the incident.

2. About the offer to pay Gile several times the standard rate for reprint rights, Gile said he would not have given the Federation permission to reprint more than 96 percent of the book, let alone alter the artwork and omit the sentences. By changing the artwork and text, Gile said the book’s positive message of “love, disappointment, consequences, forgiveness and renewal changed to crime and punishment.”

“The First Forest is a coffee table quality, cross-over book marketed for adults and children,” Gile said. The Federation’s Your Big Backyard is a magazine for children that claims to be “printed on totally chlorine-free paper, using inks with a high percentage of vegetable oils.” Specifically, the magazine section where Gile’s altered book was reproduced is titled “Read to Me.”

3. Regarding the three advertisement offers, Gile questioned the value of such propositions because he claimed the Federation’s market was similar to the book’s audience.

4. The prospect to purchase and distribute several hundred copies of The First Forest is little solace to Gile, when compared to more than half a million unauthorized copies of the Federation’s version of his book in schools, houses and libraries throughout the United States and Canada.

Like the Federation, Gile, too, hopes to avoid a legal battle. However, Gile said he has contacted California attorney Paul S. Levine about the incident.

Levine describes the Federation’s offer as “woefully inadequate.” Levine added, “We are hopeful we can resolve this short of litigation, but we are prepared for such action, should it be necessary.” When asked if he knew of any other copyright infringements on the part of the Federation, Levine said he wasn’t aware of any but is conducting an investigation.

Heflin was not available for comment.

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