Bonnie Siegler | Dear Bonnie

Dear Bonnie: Taunted in Tehran

Editor's Note: Dear Bonnie is our truth-telling advice column from Bonnie Siegler. We hope you enjoy it as much as we do, and invite our readers to submit their questions directly to: [email protected]

Dear Bonnie,

Imagine a group of students who develop a concept for a project in a class, but never complete it. The project is the result of a collaborative effort, and because it's a student project, there's no contract or agreement framing who owns the ideas. But a few months later one of the students uses the idea from class to create a personal project, which then gets picked up and published as though it's the work of just the one person.

Those of us in that initial class group find it vexing that credit hasn't been shared, but in the absence of a contract, what recourse do we really have?

Taunted in Tehran

Dear Tehry,

First of all: what a jerk.

One of the great mysteries in life for me is why people don’t understand that sharing credit makes them look better, not worse. I imagine that this person will go on to do this again and again and will suffer professionally because of it. Or I hope so anyway.

But back to your query.

I would say your group should send the “published designer” a letter (or an email if you must) explaining how disappointed you all are, how inappropriate it was to have taken and published this project as a solo effort, and suggesting how they might remedy the situation. Maybe you want an apology? Maybe you want the publisher to correct the error? Maybe you want assurances, to which you can all agree, that anything involving this particular project must credit the entire group. It's never too late to put that in writing, sign it and make it official. Whatever you choose, make sure what you want is clear and in no uncertain terms.

I asked a lawyer’s advice on your behalf and she told me that a contributor’s right to recognition does not in fact require a legal document and agrees that asking for a correction or additional acknowledgment may be your best recourse. She also suggested that the threat or reality of the contributors' exposing the wrongdoer and publisher might also work to set the record straight.

One thing to consider is the fact that this one student took the initiative and got the project published, which could actually favor them from a legal perspective. In other words, the law might see that they went beyond what the rest of you did, thereby earning extra credit. Of course, morally, it’s still questionable, but you should keep this in mind. The most likely avenue of relief for you is to appeal to the student's sense of responsibility and hope they'll feel compelled to right their wrong.

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