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Elisabeth Hasselbeck Lawsuit is Preposterous

By June 25, 2009

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Last month Elisabeth Hasselbeck, former Survivor contestant and now co-host on The View, published a book called The G-Free Diet, her story of being diagnosed with celiac disease and learning to live on the gluten-free diet. (The book immediately became controversial in the celiac community, as I mention in my review of The G-Free Diet.) On Monday, a woman named Susan Hassett sued Hasselbeck and her publishers in federal court for $3 million, charging copyright infringement and plagiarism. Since then, I've seen headlines in dozens of media outlets saying "Elisabeth Hasselbeck Sued for Plagiary." Why don't any of the headlines say (as, in my opinion, they should), "Elisabeth Hasselbeck Victim of Preposterous Lawsuit"?

Hassett self-published a book called Living with Celiac Disease. She claims she sent Hasselbeck a copy in 2008, and that Hasselbeck's The G-Free Diet "regurgitates" Living with Celiac Disease. Hassett complains (in a letter from her lawyer that's posted on TMZ.com) that both books have chapters on "What is Celiac Disease," the symptoms of celiac disease, kids with celiac disease, setting up a gluten-free kitchen, traveling gluten-free, and eating in restaurants. If Hassett thinks she owns the rights to these basic concepts about living with celiac disease, she needs to realize that you can't copyright concepts or organizational structures. Any reasonable writer could come up with those chapter topics (and many have).

Hassett says she advised her readers, "If you eat in restaurants, it might be a good idea to make up a card and write down what you're allergic to and keep it in your wallet." Hassett complains that Hasselbeck plagiarized this idea because The G-Free Diet includes a dining card. Hassett, however, was far from the first author to advise people with celiac disease to bring dining cards to restaurants. In 1995, Jax Peters Lowell was already including dining cards in her classic book, Against the Grain. I started advising readers about dining cards 12 years later in 2007. Hasselbeck would have been remiss had she left this topic out of her book.

In Hasselbeck's The G-Free Diet, there's a line that says, "The foods in the outer aisles of the supermarket should be the foundation of your diet -- of any diet, really, with or without the gluten." Hassett says this is plagiarism because her book says: "A person with celiac disease should only shop in the outer isles of the supermarket. The reason being the only thing down the other isles is things you can't have." (The grammar and spelling mistakes are taken directly from the lawyer's letter - and by the way, Hassett is wrong. It is not true that people with celiac disease should only shop in the outer aisles.) Hassett can't possibly be claiming that Hasselbeck copied her word-for-word, so she must be saying Hasselbeck stole her idea (and ideas can't be copyrighted). But is Hassett implying that she came up with the idea of shopping for gluten-free food in the periphery of the supermarket? Jax Peters Lowell was already telling readers in 2005, in The Gluten-Free Bible, that gluten-free foods were more likely to be found "at the perimeter of the store." Also years ago, Dr. Karoly Horvath and registered dietitian Pam Cureton wrote (in Gluten-Free Diet Guide for Families, published by the North American Society for Pediatric Gastroenterology, Hepatology and Nutrition, "On your first trip to the grocery store, think about shopping the perimeter of the store." I put similar advice in my article, At the Grocery Store: How to Go Shopping for Gluten-Free Food, first posted in 2007.

The threatening letter from Hassett's lawyer to Hasselbeck was cc'd to others, including celebrities Oprah Winfrey and Barbara Walters. The lawyer wrote, "In order to avoid serious embarassment...I am authorized to consider an out of court settlement..." Indeed.

I hope this case is thrown out of court.

Update: On November 12, 2009, this case was dismissed by the judge.

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Celiac Disease Forum

June 25, 2009 at 6:14 pm
(1) Emily McKinney says:

As an intellectual property lawyer (and a Celiac) I agree – definitely preposterous!

June 25, 2009 at 9:28 pm
(2) Sandra Robins says:

I agree! Well said! This is common knowledge about celiac, not plagiarism as I explained in my article. The issue with the headlines and the media is that unfortunately they are not knowledgeable about celiac disease.

June 26, 2009 at 6:34 am
(3) Passing by says:

Nancy…unless you have actually read both books, then how can you make a fair judgement call? Do you have a background in copyright law? Are you basing your opinion on the one letter? As unsophisticated as the letter or approach of author may appear, would a judge issue a verdict based on a letter, or would he wait to assess the facts? The facts would mean reading the CONTENT of both books. There is something called common knowledge that we can all agree upon. Numerous articles, including the one by Ms. Robins propose the same thing.

But we need to consider a few things: how someone expresses themself or how someone assembles the compilation of those “common” ideas is key, and these things to not have to be novel or entirely original. In copyright circles it’s called “compilation copyright”. If this woman had simply appeared out of the woodwork, without any documentation, or without a preexisting book “already published”, then we might have pause. But this is not the case.

So until all the proper assessing has been done, it is unfair to pass judgement. That’s the proper way to approach such a case. I don’t know either women, but am most interested in this case for the copyright angle! I find it most interesting that commenter Emily McKinney claims she is an intellectual property lawyer. A professional of the law may make an assessment on quick glance, but to properly issue an opinion she would have to read both books. She should know this.

With good faith, let’s all be fair and not rush to judgement. Even if our opinions keep coming to the surface! As I stated following Sandra’s article: May the honest person prevail!

June 26, 2009 at 6:36 am
(4) Passing by says:

By the way your website is informative!

June 26, 2009 at 6:45 am
(5) Passing by says:

Compilation meaning the unique way someone presents the ideas, as generic as they may be! Ok, that’s enough from this poster.

June 26, 2009 at 1:50 pm
(6) CATHEE says:

I thought these messages were for “comments”. “PASSING BY” should write her own book!

June 26, 2009 at 8:22 pm
(7) DrMom says:

I have read both books. They are virtually the same with the exception of the recipes. Even most of Hasselbeck’s experiences mirror Hassett’s in tone and expression.

Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s book does not contain a bibliography. Highly unusual given all the ‘common knowledge’ her book contains.

The letter from her attorney does not accurately reflect the content of the claim.

That letter was leaked.

June 27, 2009 at 12:05 pm
(8) celiacdisease says:

Thanks for your comments, everyone! To Passing By and DrMom: It’s true that I haven’t read Hassett’s book in its entirety. However, right after Hasselbeck’s book came out, Hassett began to complain she’d been plagiarized. As soon as I heard those charges, I went to Hassett’s website and to her xlibris page (xlibris is a company that lets people self-publish their own books, without editing or fact-checking) and read excerpts from her book. DrMom, I have been a professional editor for more than 20 years and I completely disagree that the books are “virtually the same.” I don’t even agree that the books are similarly structured.

June 28, 2009 at 6:20 am
(9) Passing by says:

Nancy…hopefully this entire situation resolves itself quickly, and with fairness, so the celiac community can get back to informing rather than debating. Following her reading, one celiac reviewer commented that G-Free appears dated with respect to solid, current information, so likely the other book does too. If so, then in either case, that’s a shame.

July 1, 2009 at 3:59 am
(10) Jack says:

Are Hassett and her pals leaving comments on here? Interesting that Hasselbeck hasn’t actually been served. Having worked in television journalism for years, I can say that the chances that Hasselbeck actually got the book are pretty slim. What I find most telling is that Hassett also complains that she wasn’t invited to be on The View after sending in her book… and that her repeated comments claiming that Hasselbeck stole her book were removed from ABC’s website (which is pretty standard practice with bizarre content).

July 1, 2009 at 12:12 pm
(11) Mel says:

I am a recently diagnosed Celiac and have found so much relief with Elizabeth’s book. I did not read Ms Hassett’s book, but there is so much personal information in Elizabeth’s book—I can’t see it. Also, we all suffer from the same disease…so isn’t it likely our stories and experiences are familiar? I saw myself in those experiences…..and quite honestly my life has been much enriched since I purchaed the book. In fact, I have one for the brief case and bought another for the home edition.

January 4, 2010 at 3:29 pm
(12) MP says:

Oh goody, now I can write a book using those same ideas and just scramble the words…and NO ONE, including a judge will notice or be able to touch me. Bruhahaha. You guarantee this?

As soon as I heard Hasselback on the View talk about celiac, I shouted she’s plagiarizing, as I’ve had celiac over 25 years and read every book out there. What she’s doing is riding on the backs of other people, so don’t buy her book, purchase the ones that had all the ideas FIRST. lol But then saying this, I won’t be able to sell my book when it comes out because I’d be riding all other authors backs, including hers. Ready for a piggy back ride Elisa-booed? lol

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