Go to the doctor, lose the copyright to your writings

Today's New York Times has an interesting article about people being sued for critiquing businesses online. Most of the article deals with those crap-filed strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs), but what really caught my eye is an item on page 2 halfway down the article. To quote:

"The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives the doctor copyright over a Web posting if the patient mentions the doctor or practice." (See update at bottom for more on this quote.)

Are you freaking kidding me? As a writer, I have a good bit of interest in protecting the copyrights to my works. And now if I go to my doctor I might be asked to sign over my copyright to the M.D.! Hell no!

According to a page on the Medical Justice website, it appears the NY Times article is correct. While the Medical Justice website doesn't publicly state that doctors should take the copyright from people, the site does say that their "solution" means that "Patients are free to post online. In the rare event the feedback is not constructive, doctors have a tool to address fictional or slanderous posts."

That tool? Likely a DMCA takedown notice. If a patient has signed over the copyright to their online writings to their doctor, all the doctor has to do is flash that signed document to the offending website and the nasty words will be removed. No lawsuit and no fuss, at least for the doctor.

Medical Justice and the doctors using this copyright grab will likely defend their actions by saying it only applies when someone mentions their doctor or practice in their online writings. But I doubt the legal document which transfers copyright is that specific. For example, the Medical Justice website states their "solution" gives doctors a way to "address fictional or slanderous posts."

Fictional? Does this mean that if my novel includes a doctor as a character then my real doctor can claim that novel's copyright? Could be. After all, if the legal document addresses fictional posts, then the doctor could claim that the character is really him. Plenty of people have sued fiction writers for similar reasons, and if your doctor has a form giving him your copyright ... well, you get the idea.

Perhaps that is far-fetched. But the simple truth is that signing over the copyright to your writings is a bad idea for any writer--especially when you are not being paid to do so and must do it to receive medical care.

I hope writers raise a stink about this. Because if Medical Justice and doctors' groups succeed in making this copyright form the standard for receiving medical care, you better believe other professional groups and businesses will soon do the same. And if that happens, all bets are off for both freedom of speech and the ability of writers to own the copyrights to their works.

UPDATE: Around 11:00 pm tonight I noticed the NY Times had changed the quote I referenced above. Their article now reads:

"The group Medical Justice, which helps protect doctors from meritless malpractice suits, advises its members to have patients sign an agreement that gives doctors more control over what patients post online."

Obviously that's a big difference. I looked for a correction notice but they haven't posted one. I'm kicking myself for not having copied the original article. However, others noticed this same quote, including The Legal Satyricon and this blog, which posted the original article. If the NY Times misquoted Medical Justice, they need to run a correction, not simply change the article without notice. I'm also wondering if the NY Times accidentally revealed the trade secret to Medical Justice's "tool" for dealing with online criticism. Either way, it is still disturbing that doctors would do this to limit their patients' free speech--whether or not copyright is involved. But until I hear why the NY Times changed their information, I'm sticking with my original reading of the article.

UPDATE 2: I have written a longer post about the Times making this change without a correction notice or explanation. This is extremely poor journalism on their part.