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Plagiarism: Dealing with a Rite of Passage

About a year ago, Belgian choreographer, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker outed Beyoncé’s “Countdown” video for plagiarizing concepts from “Rosas Danst Rosas” and “Achterland.” Surprised that a real artist actually paid her any attention, Beyoncé eventually admitted to being “inspired” by De Keersmaeker’s work.

As in the music world, online publishing runs rampant with “inspired” bloggers. If your site enjoys any level of attention, it has surely fallen victim to a plagiarist. Just like receiving daily, spammy link requests, it is a rite of passage that means people are taking notice.

The Sampler

Image via serjao carvalho

Contemporary music has fully embraced the curation and mixing of sampled music in exchange for royalty shares. But if the recent rash of sites, such as BuzzFeed, are any indication, online publishing has replaced journalism, thought-leadership, and creativity with uncompensated, unattributed, sampling.

Slate and Gawker recently outed BuzzFeed for blatantly plagiarizing listicles with decontextualized photos and copied lists from IMDb. BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, Ben Smith, has since stated:

They [BuzzFeed] were moving toward more traditional standards of sourcing when I got here, but I certainly have made those traditional reportorial standards a lot clearer.”

Still, the trend is clear. Expect more of this type of behavior in 2013.

The Cover Publisher

Image via t-klick

Cover bands are viewed as little more than silly flattery. But Cover Publishers can inflict actual harm. Consider spammers that use RSS scrapers to plagiarize content, which sometimes outranks the original site (if the original site is inferior in authority).

I recently discovered a blog scraping content from Jessica Edmondson’s insightful post on Reconnecting with Bloggers. I will not link to the offending blog, but take a look at the partial screen shot.

A quick comparison with the original article leaves no doubt: this Cover Publisher scraped our RSS feed. Fortunately, the scraper blog is inferior in authority and does not outrank CopyPress.

Why Plagiarism is Rampant

Cover Publishers and Samplers plagiarize because they are inherently lazy. Its easier to cash in on the hard work of others, than to struggle through the creative process.

But our recent zest for sharing digital media and consuming viral content has emboldened Samplers to mash-up bits and pieces of content without a second thought to permissive attribution. The status quo is copy and paste first; apologize later—if caught.

Another contributing factor is the rise of rapid (mostly vapid) publishing. Many publishers that are caught up in the arms-race for attention have replaced substance and quality with quantity and mediocracy. As Christopher S. Penn points out in his rant against bad content marketing,

“Most of us have a certain number of really good ideas in us, a decent supply of pretty good ideas, and a metric ton of bad ideas. As we create content, we tend to use them up in that order – we begin creating content and knock it out of the park for a short while, keep people interested with pretty good stuff, and eventually, without replenishment, that well runs dry and we create garbage.”

Or, some simply sample other’s “good ideas.”

How do you stop plagiarism? The short answer is, you can’t. If a “professional” plagiarist really wants to lift your content, then no warning banner, JavaScript code, RSS feed management tactic, etc. is going to stop him. In some cases, it just might hurt you.

Harmful Plagiarism-Preventive Tactics

Disabling Text Selecting and Copying: I just legitimately copied, pasted, and attributed a quote from Christopher S. Penn. If he had implemented a JavaScript code prohibiting “Right-Click Copy” or “CTRL C,” my frustration over the difficulty in sharing his quote would have lost him attention and a link. Never impede the sharing of your message.

Truncated RSS Feeds: Shortening your RSS feeds is a sure-fire way to piss off subscribers. When I’m flipping through FlipBoard, nothing ruins my experience more than leaving my preferred reader to load a slow blog page. Never impede the consumption of your message.

Amateur Deterrents

Copyrights and Warning: Displaying a strong copyright (i.e. © COPYRIGHT 2012 All Rights Reserved – COPYPRESS)  and a warning banner may deter the passive plagiarist

Garner Backlinks and Attribution: Embedding links to your site (resulting in backlinks, if the plagiarists directly copy the page) and a Copyright message into your RSS Footer will expose the careless plagiarist

Detection: CopyScape provides a service that checks daily for copies of your pages. But at $20 per 10 pages and $1 per additional page, this solution soon becomes cost-inefficient. The same goes for using Google to search for phrases within your content—its just not a scalable solution.

Confronting Plagiarists

Holding a plagiarist accountable depends on the amount of energy you are willing to invest.

Contact the Offender: In instances where you can actually find contact information, (either on the site or through the use of send a Cease and Desist Letter

Spread the News: In most instances (as with scraper sites), your site will not be the only victim. Search Google for phrases found in other articles on the offending site to locate other victimized blogs—then alert them. There is power in numbers.

DMCA Notice: If you’re especially worried about an offending site that is rising in Google’s ranks, report them to Google. But don’t hold your breath on Google springing into action.

Publicly Shame: Publicly speak out against the offending blog. Here’s an example of my favorite public shaming that resulted in a Blogger being written a $500 check:

Short of locking your content in a vault, nothing can be done to completely eliminate the threat of this rite of passage. Rather than wasting resources on combating the odd plagiarist, redirect that energy into boosting your sites’ authority and reputation by building industry relationships. In most cases, this will ensure that you garner more attention and trust than the plagiarist.

What other methods do you employ to deal with this industry “rite of passage?”

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