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.