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Written by Paul D. Race for Family Garden Trains

We wanted beginners to make effective choices based on available "real-world" options . . .
Free Access versus Free Reuse,
or "Why You Saw It Here First." (Updated May 6 and June 2, 2006 - see end of article)

A History Lesson: How Family Garden Trains and the Garden Railroading Hobby Grew Up Together

When I started writing about garden railroading in mid-1990s, only a handful of really useful books were available (still true), and Garden Railways Magazine was a struggling, independent labor of love (the labor of love part is still true, I think). That said, there weren't many channels for communication, and beginners couldn't always find trustworthy answers to questions about difficult or potentially controversial subjects. By the late 1990s, as much misinformation as information was circulating about garden railroading. Worse, several factions who claimed that their specific approach was the "only" legitimate way to build or operate a garden railroad were actually scaring beginners away from the hobby.

. . . most of the "urban myths" we exposed in 2001 are no longer prevalent

To mitigate the effects of misinformation and infighting, Family Garden Trains (which I founded in 1996 as an "add-on" to my business web site) started doing original research, taking our own measurements, doing our own calculations, and publishing FAQS that contained factual, balanced explanations of supposedly controversial topics. We wanted beginners to make effective choices based on available "real-world" options and not to be frightened away from the hobby by alarmists with their own agendas.

As an example, our article on the relationship between scale and gauge, (first published in 2001 and updated many times since) was comprehensive, fact-based, and reviewed by all the major manufacturers and many respected garden railroaders. But above all, it was beginner-oriented, designed to help people who were just learning about garden trains balance their decisions between their own preferences and real-world choices. The current article is much shorter than the original article, since most of the "urban myths" we exposed in 2001 are no longer prevalent.

Many of our other early articles were written to defuse one controversy or another, and it was only in the last few years we've been able to turn to more general topics.

Other Efforts for the Hobby

We were also among the many people and organizations working "back channels," discussing issues that related to "the good of the hobby" with publishers, manufacturers, and other writers and editors. We negotiated agreements among different "sides" of various controversies, surveyed garden railroaders to collect input for standards organizations, and otherwise advocated on behalf of the garden railroading community in many venues. My thanks to Vance Bass and the rest of our fellow "cat-herders" who helped to build concensus and community out of chaos in those early years. Not all of our efforts were successful, but what we learned from those attempts filtered into our articles as well.

Beginners Respond Positively

Even when a high percentage of articles were written to solve problems or defuse controversies, many beginning garden railroaders found our content helpful, and told us so. Hearing compliments like "this is the best explanation of the subject I've ever read," or "my garden railroad grew up on your web site," is the best reward for what we do. But once we had addressed most of the controversies that had been confusing beginners, the "Family Garden Trains" Primer page was able to start growing into a true, general-purpose resource for beginning garden railroaders.

. . . many excellent articles are available in back issues and reprints of Garden Railways magazine. . . . But newcomers don't even know what they need to know, so that information stays . . . hidden from the user.

The Dangers in Writing "Core" Articles

Ironically, after clearing one mine field, we encountered another. You can't write general articles about planning and building garden railroads, or about choosing plants, or painting models, or anything else along that line without discussing a topic that someone, somewhere has already written about sometime within the last three decades. Avoiding such "overlap" is even harder when you try to focus on the "core" 20% of information that 80% of beginning garden railroaders need to know.

Unfortunately for the user, that doesn't mean that good articles on those subjects are easily available now. As an example, many excellent articles are available in back issues and reprints of Garden Railways magazine. When, after many reader inquiries about one core topic or another, I started writing an article on that topic, I frequently heard that there was no need to trouble myself because so-and-so had written the "definitive" article on that topic back in 1987 or whatever. And some of those articles have held up very well. But newcomers don't even know what they need to know, so that information stays, essentially, hidden from the user.

In some cases, when we have covered a topic that has also been effectively covered by a Garden Railways article of which we are aware, we provide that reference, so people can get someone else's take on the same subject - always a good thing. (We would do so in every case, if someone on the staff of GR would help us with the research - are your ears on up there?)

. . . it's part of my . . . nature to want to write the best, most user-friendly article on the subject ever written, and there's no way I could do that if I was borrowing extensively from someone else.

As an English professor, I know the dangers of plagiarism and all the ways to avoid it. I do not incorporate organization, main points, tables, checklists, schedules, rules-of-thumb, phrases, or paraphrases of phrases from other authors into my work. Period. In fact it's part of my perverse nature to want to write the best, most user-friendly article on the subject ever written, and there's no way I could do that if I was borrowing extensively from someone else. The concepts I am explaining may be universal, but the way I explain them must be unique. You learned all of this in English 101, of course, but it bears repeating, because not everyone seems to feel exactly the same way I do about this.

Now, there are many authors whose content I will never overlap. For example, I leave all the technical or craftsman or brand-specific stuff to George Schreyer or Larry Cooper or David Fletcher or a couple dozen other people who know far more about such things than I. In fact, many garden railroading resources have huge libraries of articles that are more advanced or more specific than mine will ever be. To me this means that they are filling a huge niche that Family Garden Trains will never have the will or time to address. Such resources also give our readers a place to go when they've exhausted the relatively small collection of resources we provide.

On the other hand, I can't help but overlap something Jack Verducci or Pat Hayward or Kevin Strong or some other frequent Garden Railways contributor has written every time I target a "core" garden railroading subject. What I try to "bring to the table" is a unique approach to "tired, old" subjects. I include, when possible, new techniques, organization, worksheets, decision tables, templates, checklists, "rules of thumb," and examples. Of course, that way of writing is "second nature" to anyone who documents complex technologies for a living.

As an additional safeguard, when I'm planning or writing an article, I deliberately avoid reading the work of other writers on the subject, at least until I have completed the first or second draft. That way, if I decide later that, to be fair to the reader, I have to go back and include something that Jack or Pat or Kevin has said on the subject, I know exactly what ideas or expressions they "contributed" and label them as such.

Where It Gets Sticky

That said, there have been several occasions on which Family Garden Trains published an original article on which someone spent weeks of research, drafting, trying out different approaches, and even testing out instructions on a "live" garden railroad project; then one publication cycle later, a very similar article under another person's name appeared in another resource. Again, most of these articles are about core subjects, so we wouldn't be suspicious, except for the timing, combined with similarities of approach, organization, content, examples, and even titles that quite strain the definition of "coincidence." What can I even say about articles that appear shortly after ours, with just one word changed in the title to make them look like they're covering the same material we do? (They usually don't, by the way.)

We chose to ignore the first several occurrences, which, unfortunately, may have sent the wrong signal. Not only have the "coincidences" grown more blatant; we've also stumbled upon misappropriations of our trademarks and related issues that I can't go into because A: it would be too easy to figure out who I'm talking about, and B: it would make some of you as upset as it made me when I found out about it, and what would be the point of that? Still, I have to confess that sometimes it's hard to maintain my ordinary cheerful optimism that we've gotten past the chaotic early turf wars and are ready to start really working together to grow the hobby.

How Should We Respond?

First, we take a deep breath and weigh the consequences of responding too vociferously to even the most offensive and deliberate of these incidents. Are we here to build a personal empire or to protect and build the hobby? Oh, that's right, it's only a hobby, after all. And it's a hobby that needs support and continued outreach more than it needs us escalating a turf war, even for valid reasons. Like the Apostle Paul (Philippians 1:15-18), I'm trying to rejoice that the "gospel" is getting preached, whether or not everyone doing so has the finest motives. So, I will continue to focus on outreach and growth of the hobby as much as possible, and let other people operate by other game plans if they want to, as long as it doesn't hurt us too much more than it already has.

Sure, the growth we are working for benefits the "undeserving: as much as it benefits the "deserving," but we still all benefit. And at the end of the day, I can look in the mirror, and that's a right nobody can encroach on.

Family Garden Trains will continue to give beginners free access to the quality, original content we have always provided

How Will We Respond?

Above all else, Family Garden Trains will continue to give beginners the same free access to the quality, original content we have always provided. In the meantime, I try to remind myself that 90% of the "borrowed" content is located on resources that, for one reason or another, are "invisible" to most beginners, anyway. So if you come across a great idea, and you saw it here first, just remember that there are many reasons you saw it here first. Not only did we (to our knowledge) first express many of these concepts in the ways they are presented here, but we also make that content easily and constantly available to the people who need it most.

We have also restricted our pre-publication reviewer list to a handpicked few, which is an unfortunate insult to those dozens of other folks who have helped us over the years, but whom we don't know quite as well. Sorry, but we don't know how else to keep our articles at least a "publication cycle" ahead of other folks who like our ideas as much as we do.

Also, since I have such a huge backlog of my own projects, I have made it a point since about October, 2005 to read very little of anyone else's work until the next few projects are done, because I don't want to accidentally borrow anyone else's "unique approaches" or "rules of thumb." Once I'm remotely caught up, I'll try to get "back in the loop." What are we working on that's so important? You'll have to wait and see along with everybody else, because I want you to see it here first.

So what's the point of bringing all this stuff to light if we mostly plan to keep on doing what we've been doing all along? In part, because if I don't say something now and it keeps up, I may eventually have to sue somebody for the right to use my own content in a publication or my own trademark on a catalog. I need to explain that being forgiving isn't the same as being clueless, and that we reserve the right to defend our words, our copyrights, and our trademarks. But above all, I want to ask everyone who is struggling to help the hobby grow to work together and not against each other.

Part of the reason we jumped into the "fray" early and often was that we think the way for everybody to get what they want out of the hobby is to make the pie bigger.

. . . how about let's cooperate in finding a way to get all those people you saw in Lowe's Garden Center last weekend to think that a train around the fishpond is as natural as a train around a Christmas tree?

The Big Picture

Warning: another Biblical allusion ahead. I can't help thinking of the days of the Judges, when "there was no king in Israel and every man did what was right in his own eyes". The Ammonites and Moabites and Canaanites and Philistines and so on were all convinced that the only way to expand their own wealth was to steal someone else's. To each group, it was a "zero sum game," like trying to make their "piece of the pie" larger by making someone else's smaller. But the continuous warfare destroyed far more wealth than it transferred, and at the end of that era, just about everyone was worse off than before. What does this have to do with garden railroading? Well, over the years, some folks have behaved as if the only way to grow their bit of the hobby (or their bit of some market) was by diverting resources or market share from everyone else. Isn't it time to get beyond the Philistines' "zero-sum" mentality?

Part of the reason I jumped into the "fray" early and often was that, together with many other hobbyists, I believed (and still believe) that the way for everybody to get what they want out of the hobby is to make the pie bigger. And, historically, that is how the hobby actually has grown. People first drawn to the hobby by LGB Euro trains have migrated to 1:20.3 US narrow gauge. People first drawn to the hobby by the Bachmann Shay have migrated to 1:32 mainline railroads, and so on. In other words, whatever benefited one segment of the hobby eventually benefited everybody. To throw in another cliche'd metaphor, a rising tide floats all boats.

Think of it this way: The garden accessory industry is at least 100 times larger than ours, worth billions every year. Rather than fighting over existing resources (and readers), how about let's cooperate in finding a way to get all those people you saw in Lowe's Garden Center last weekend to think that a train around the fishpond is as natural as a train around a Christmas tree? If we can accomplish that, a lot of other things will sort themselves out quickly.

What Can You Do About It?

Enjoy your trains, and support ALL of the resources you find helpful. Everything else will sort itself out sooner or later.

Just as important, we appreciate hearing from you with suggestions or other content that you think would help other Garden Railroaders to have a more rewarding experience.

Please let me know if anything in this blog "touched a nerve," and I'll post appropriate follow-ups as they come in.

May, 06 Update (Dueling Article Titles)

Soon after I wrote this blog, I noticed that an article I published on another web site had been joined by another article written by a person who (as of May 15, 2006) has made no other contribution to that particular web site. By some strange coincidence, the second article's title was the SAME as mine except that one word was added to the other title to make their article sound "Better" (it isn't). That sort of petty "one-upmanship") would almost be funny if this was the first time this sort of thing had happened (it isn't). In this case, the article itself is nothing like mine, but that's not the point. The point is that, every time I think that the "community" is getting beyond this kind of petty infighting, someone proves me wrong. I am not angry, but I am disappointed.

I have changed the title of my article to make the "one-upmanship" less obvious, and I am continuing to camouflage the identities of the people involved, hoping they will "get the point" and channel their energies in a more positive direction.

In the meantime, remember, you STILL saw it here first. :-)

June 2, 06 Update

Okay, so hinting strongly about people copying us and borrowing our content in an apparent attempt to crowd us out of our little niche hasn't worked out exactly as I'd hoped. In fact, another web site has just changed its appearance, its taglines, its slogans, and its headings to make that site more likely to to confuse search engines or newbies looking for Family Garden Trains(tm). I started to put several examples in here to prove my point, but took them out again. The people doing this know who they are. And if you think I enjoy having to check back every few weeks to see how they're ripping me off this time, you have another think coming.

Not content with potentially misleading wording changes, the site has even plagiarized a tagline I have been embedding in my HTML file headers for use by search engines. My version was:

    The Internet's largest collection of free, professionally-written Garden Railroading articles for beginning-to-intermediate Garden Railroaders.
The other site used to use the tagline:
    "Learn all about Garden Trains and Garden Railways"

But in May, 2006, that site has changed its tagline to:

    "The Internet's best collection of information on Garden Trains for beginning-to-intermediate Garden Railroaders."
Of course reusing my text but putting the word "best" in front of it is not a stretch for people who've already done the same thing with the word "better" in another context. But using the same syntax, the same terms, and some of the same phrases is not only blatant plagiarism, (and a violation of federal copyright law). It's also an attempt to misrepresent themselves as better at the one thing we do best - in fact, at the one thing we do period.

It's also self-defeating. Since its foundation, Family Garden Trains(tm) has introduced tens of thousands of people to the hobby and provided the "impetus" to get many of those folks off the couch and into the back yard with a shovel. Because 90% of what we do is beginner-oriented, many of those folks have already moved on to other resources that can help them with the more advanced issues, including the competing site that has apparently set its sights on us! If Family Garden Trains(tm) goes away tomorrow, it will not make other sites more profitable; it will simply slow the growth of the hobby and reduce the flow of intermediate and advanced hobbiests to the other resources.

Although it's self-defeating to the perpetrators, it's also discouraging to me. In fact, I hate this sort of thing. It sucks all the joy out of something I ordinarily find beneficial to others and rewarding to me. It wastes huge amounts of time I should be devoting toward our charter, which is getting new people involved in the hobby. I've only published this information as a last resort. In fact, I've only reported the last and most blatant symptoms of a problem I first noticed in 2002 when other sites started embedding "Family Garden Trains" into their HTML pages as invisible search terms and one site-owner registered the domain name "" so I couldn't use my own trademark for my web site. In the meantime, we've been forging on. The other contributors and I have put many hundreds of hours into developing and "vetting" the content that's on our pages today. All of this effort was donated - we didn't even start adding advertisers until the end of 2004, and those barely pay our ISP bills. So far, the work has been rewarding, but watching other people come in and capitalize on our hard work and our best ideas again and again (while disparaging our commitment to the "good of the hobby" at the same time) can't help but diminish our enthusiasm for any more huge new efforts.

For some time, I have been contemplating two new, entirely original projects that could dramatically benefit hobbyists and the hobby as a whole. Either project would require hundreds of hours of my time to "kick off" properly, though. And unfortunately, once I got "the ball rolling," either project could be easily copied by anyone without personal qualms about plagiarism or misappropriation of intellectual property - especially by people whose whose web site has something like fifty times our budget. Frankly, I can't help wondering if it's pointless to invest many hundreds of more hours getting the new projects started if we're just paving the way for someone with more clout than vision to shoulder us out of the way once we've done the hard part.

Last month I talked about how "making the pie" bigger benefits everybody. These projects would do just that. But people without vision don't care how big their piece is; they just care about having more than the next guy, even if they make their own share smaller in the process.

At the moment, we are close to the end of our quest to document the all the core topics that all beginning garden railroaders need to understand. In fact, I have just two more "core" articles on the "drawing board." (If you think I'm going to tell you what they are, you're crazy.) I also have two product reviews, and ideas for several short articles to address more topical subjects. After that, I have a long list of updates that need to be made to existing Family Garden Trains(tm) articles. At the rate I usually progress on these things, that's easily several months' worth of work (if not a year) before Family Garden Trains(tm) has fulfilled its self-determined "charter" and basically enters a "maintenance mode," except for continuing to update existing articles and addressing newbie questions. I'm thinking that if by that time I'm still fighting to stay one step ahead of people who would rather capitalize on our vision than develop their own, my "new" projects will go permanently on the shelf and I'll focus my energy elsewhere.

In the meantime, I will confess that I have stolen the word "best" from the other web site. Several of my pages now have the following tagline:

    The Internet's largest and best collection of free, original, professionally-written articles for beginning and intermediate Garden Railroaders.
And, unlike the other folks' statement, this one is true. Family Garden Trains probably doesn't have the best collection of articles overall. (Garden Railways would have that if they ever figured out how to make them conveniently available online). But we certainly have the Internet's best and largest collection of Garden Railroading articles that are:
  • 100% original,
  • written and/or edited by professional writers, and
  • altogether free.
And our articles will continue to be original, professional, and free, even if it means attracting people to the hobby who later go on to support other resources who have been working to shoulder us out of their way for years.

And remember, you still saw them here first.

Note from June 19, 2006: For a follow-up article on the "Dueling Article Titles" issue mentioned in the May update above, please see the Dueling Titles blog.

Note from June 20, 2006: For a follow-up article that specifically discusses issues relating to the use and misuse of the name "Family Garden Trains"(tm) and the phrase "Garden Trains," please see the What's in a Name? blog.

Have a great summer, all. Please contact us if you have any comments, questions, or concerns.


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