Or so they say.
Yet every author, musician, artist or photographer will understand that gut wrenching feeling when you realise that someone has been ripping off your work.
Opening a webpage and recognising your opinions, knowledge and ideas have been copied and passed off as someone else’s, is quite shocking.
It is an invasion. And it feels very personal.
Having been the target of some fairly extensive content theft, I have researched copyright and plagiarism, and learned quite a lot about this complex and emotive issue.
I am sharing that knowledge in the hope that it may help others in the same situation. Both those being copied, and those who may be inadvertently slipping into the role of plagiarist themselves.
A digital world
Of course we all live in a digital world. And it is a simple matter nowadays for people to help themselves to digital content.
If you build a website that attracts a substantial number of visitors a month, sooner or later someone is going to sneak off with one of your articles.
So it doesn’t surprise me when my readers contact me to let me know that my work is being copied
But why do some bloggers steal content? Is it laziness, greed, or do they just not realise that it is wrong?
Most often I think it is because they are writing for the wrong reasons, or on the wrong topic.
When blogging becomes a drag
Some people are attracted to blogging in the hopes of an easy income. Which of course, it is not.
It takes the best part of a year before most new blogs begin to feature in google search engine results.
In the meantime, the new blogger has to keep producing fresh content on a regular basis, or google won’t love him for long.
So unless he loves writing with an all consuming passion. Blogging is soon going to become a drag.
Successful bloggers have something to say – ideas and opinions in their heads that just clamour to come out and be heard. They write because they can’t stop.
The wrong topic
Another common reason for new bloggers to struggle is that they have chosen the wrong subject. The golden rule of successful blogging is ‘Write about what you know’.
Everyone has a topic about which they are passionate. And on which they are knowledgeable or experienced. Passing on that knowledge, or documenting a personal journey towards it, is at the heart of most successful blogs.
Researching, writing and editing a quality article takes a lot of time. The truth is, unless the blogger has some serious, in-depth knowledge on his subject, he is soon going to run out of inspiration.
Picking the ‘wrong topic’ , perhaps to emulate someone else’s success in that field is a common mistake. When this happens, the new blogger starts to look for an easy route to the success he craves.
Why come up with original material, if you can pinch someone else’s. After all, if its up on the internet, its up for grabs. Isn’t it?
The law on copyright
There is often confusion over the language and legal implications of content theft. Over what is copyright, and what is plagiarism. Most bloggers have a basic understanding of copyright law when it comes to taking material from other websites.
They know that they cannot just copy and paste any image, or text from the originator (without their permission) without falling foul of copyright legislation.
On this basic level, the law is quite clear. If you own a blog or a website, you do not need to make ‘copyright’ notices, or watermark your images (though some claim these precautions may reduce problems). Anything you create, that is your original work, is your property.
This includes text, images, and even html code. So no-one can copy your fancy web design either.
What many do not know, is that they cannot ‘adapt’ other people’s work and present it as their own either. We’ll look at that in more detail below.
But what about the difference between copyright infringement, and plagiarism? Are these terms interchangeable? Or are they different things entirely?
What is plagiarism
Wikipedia defines plagiarism as follows
Plagiarism always involves the plagiarist attempting to pass off another’s work as his own. This misrepresentation lies at the heart of plagiarism.
Indiana University provides quite a good explanation with examples of plagiarism here.
Particularly pertinent to what follows below is that when you are gleaning information from books and website, you do not need to give attribution to widely known facts. Their example is ‘President J.F.Kennedy was elected in 1960’
On the other hand, you must give attribution to the interpretation of facts. Their example in this case is “According to the American Family Leave Coalition’s new book, Family Issues and Congress, President Bush’s relationship with Congress has hindered family leave legislation”
Note how the source is given attribution with ‘according to’ .
More on copyright infringement
Copyright infringement can take place without plagiarism. The person who copy-pastes an article that does not belong to him and places a link beneath it to the original, is not a plagiarist.
In short, if someone steals your stuff and tells the world where they got it from. They are not a plagiarist. Though they may well be violating your copyright.
Scraping is the simplest form of content theft and the one that most successful bloggers are likely to experience sooner or later.
It is a straightforward violation of copyright.
Scrapers simply copy and paste an article in its entirety and drop it into their own website.
Disabling ‘right-click’ may put a few scrapers off, but it is annoying for your honest visitors, and there is always your RSS feed or your email list from which to steal.
There are different types of scraper, too.
There is the person who has, by and large, built their own hobby website, and is struggling to find original material. So they pinch some of yours. They will often include ‘attribution’ or a link back to your page.
Which they may or may not believe makes it ok.
Don’t forget, it is still illegal to copy other people’s work without their permission, even if you provide a link back to the original source. All the link will do, is prevent you committing plagiarism.
Digital Millenium Copyright Act
These kinds of scrapers usually respond pretty rapidly when asked to remove the stolen content. And if they refuse, getting their site taken down, or at least removed under the terms of the DMCA is relatively straight forward.
Some scrapers are more determined. They are scraping on an industrial scale, and they may disguise their scraped material by running it through some software that changes some of the words around.
You will have come across these kinds of articles. They usually give the impression of having been written by a person that does not speak English fluently.
These kinds of scrapers are not producing authority sites. They are not looking for ‘blogging fame’ or trying to help others.
They are just out to make a quick buck from a adverts before moving on to pastures new. They are in clear breach of copyright, and can therefore be dealt with once they are found.
Much more insidious are Re-writers.
Some bloggers trying to cut corners, or struggling to write on a subject where they are out of their depth, think that by re-writing will get them fresh material, whilst enabling them to avoid copyright violation.
The re-writer is more of a insidious problem to the blogger he targets, because he is taking steps to disguise his misappropriation of the other person’s material. He is not just a content thief. He is also a plagiarist.
He does not provide ‘attribution’ within the article,to the originator of the material he has stolen, indeed he may decide to divert attention away from the originator by referencing a different source.
Here is what top wedding blog Style Me Pretty stylemepretty.com has this to say on Rewriters http://backstage.stylemepretty.com/2011/06/help-someone-is-stealing-my-blog-posts/
If a splog (spam blog) is rewriting the content of our posts, changing the text. removing the links, or nofollowing the links we generally work hard to stop them immediately. We’ve chosen this approach b/c this behavior is much more rare and egregious then someone simply republishing our feed. In this case, it’s quite clear that someone is trying to pass off our work as theirs and fool Google into ranking them highly in search. We generally work hard to bring these sites down.
In some cases the Rewriter may be unaware that he is stealing content.
He may have convinced himself that what he was doing when he took your article, was ‘research’. But essentially he re-writes, in order to avoid charges of copyright infringement.
However, things are not quite that simple, as we shall see.
There is no doubt that some new bloggers are confused. They don’t understand the difference between an original piece of work based on genuine research, and plagiarism via rewritten content.
We’ll look at an example to illustrate this below.
Threads on forums for bloggers will often throw up a comment like this
“If I rewrite an article, how much of the content can be original – 5%, 10% or more?”
The answer is ‘none of it’!
Simply changing some of the words around, does not make you a the author of the new piece. You are quite probably still infringing the copyright of the original, and, if you don’t provide attribution, you are also a plagiarist.
The fact that you can be guilty of copyright infringement after re-writing and adapting an article is not widely known.
Copyright holders own the right, not only to display their work, but to make derivatives or adaptions, of it. No one else is legally allowed to do this.
There is some useful information on this topic on the Nerd Writer Mom blog – Is rewriting a copyright violation
Nothing new to say?
Some will be quick to declare, that there is nothing new to say any more. Information is information, and reproducing it in your own words is not a crime.
And that is true to an extent.
An example would be the different ‘takes’ on a press release. Different journalists will write different stories, but they will all contain the same information. This isn’t plagiarism.
Or how about giving instructions of a well known topic?
How to make a lasagne for instance or resuscitate a drowned person. In the former case, there may be a few different methods, but only a few. In the latter case, there will probably be a consensus. A right way and a wrong way.
Writing out the steps in the method, and in the same order isn’t original work, but provided you don’t copy the instructions word for word, it probably isn’t plagiarism.
So when does a’researched article’ become plagiarism?
Let’s see if we can tease out the difference. Let’s look at how someone might go about writing an article on ‘Diabetes in dogs’ for example.
Telling the difference between plagiarism and journalism
This writer researches the topic of canine diabetes using multiple sources. He begins with original research. Clinical studies and so on. He has a good basic knowledge of biochemistry and physiology and he reads exhaustively.
He studies the work of many authorities on the subject, using books, veterinary journals, and websites. He then sits down with his notes and makes a mind-map of all the key points he wants to cover in his article.
If this is a topic that has been covered elsewhere online in similar detail, he will need to decide on an original ‘slant’.
He may decide to compare the increase in diabetes and other metabolic disorders in people with those in dogs.
Or he may decide to follow the path of one particular dog with this disease. Either way, he is creating something original, and totally his own. And most importantly he uses the information he has available to him to draw his own conclusions and offers his own opinions on various aspects of the topic.
This person is not a plagiarist. He’s a journalist. Even though some of the issues he covers are covered in other articles. The key points here are the ‘original slant’ and ‘multiple sources’
This writer is very busy with his day job. He doesn’t have the time to pour over original research and probably wouldn’t be able to interpret it effectively. So he looks for articles that other people have written on Canine Diabetes.
Google throws up a great article.
He knows he mustn’t copy and paste it as it is, so he copies it and then very carefully, paragraph by paragraph, modifies the text.
He changes the subtitles a little – altering “Historical aspects of canine diabetes” to ‘The history of diabetes in dogs” and so on. And he dumbs down the information a little, using more layman’s terms and more colloquialisms.
He feels a little bit uncomfortable with what he has done, so he takes a section or two of the original article and turns the paragraphs into bullet points.
He may reverse the order of a few subheadings. He also adds a few jolly comments of his own. He finds a couple of other articles to add as references at the bottom so that it looks as though he has done some research.
In fact, he may even convince himself that he has done some original research.
All he has to do is run the article through a plagiarism checker to make sure he didn’t leave in any original complete sentences. And hit the publish button.
This person is a plagiarist.
He may or may not be aware of it. But what he has done is to ‘adapt’ another person’s work, and attempt to pass their knowledge, opinions, experience and conclusions, off as his own.
Anyone familiar with the original will recognise it instantly despite the altered text and order of subheadings.
The key point are: no ‘angle’, no ‘slant’ Nothing original to offer or say. And heavy reliance on a single source
Is it illegal?
Writer B may be a cheat and a plagiarist, but is it legal?
I was surprised to learn only recently, that Writer B is breaking the law.
He is not just a plagiarist, which is not a crime, he is also infringing copyright, which is illegal.
As we have shown, copyright infringement, covers more than just copy and paste. You are not allowed to ‘adapt’ other people’s work and pass it off as your own. It is good to know that writers have this kind of protection. Though many are not aware of it.
But let’s look at one more type of plagiarist, before we conclude.
Most ‘re-writers’ probably spread their sources out quite carefully in order to avoid detection.
They take a single article from each of many different sites. A few though it seems, cannot resist the temptation when they find a website they really admire. They gather their tools around them and take up ‘mining’
I have called this copier, the miner.
The miner may be a Re-writer, or he may be a Scraper. Either way, what he does, is to work his way through the archives of his favourite website scraping or re-writing article after article.
Mining another writer’s website is a very serious form of plagiarism. But it does make the culprit easier to identify.
With so many similar titles, his whole website will take on the ‘flavour’ of his target. Indeed, the miner may be so obsessed with emulating his target that he also uses elements of their design.
To create each of his own articles, he picks out one, two, or more articles from his targeted site, and adapts or reworks them into what he thinks will pass for original work.
He rewrites the text of course, but he keeps all other elements of the original. The slant, the format, the structure, the order in which it is presented. In amongst the ‘facts’ of the matter, will be included the opinions and advice of the author.
So, how do you avoid being targeted by a plagiarist, or even slipping into plagiarism yourself?
Tips for bloggers that are struggling for ideas
It is important to know what you can and cannot use, when it comes to information that others have placed online.
Plagiarism and copyright infringement are subtly different. The plagiarist tries to pass off another’s work as his own. The content thief who attributes his scraped material to the author is not a plagiarist. But he is still a copyright infringer.
Copyright infringement is a crime. Even if you give attribution, or provide a link back to the source.
If you infringe another person’s copyright you stand to lose not only the stolen article, but your entire website.
Plagiarism is the kiss of death to anyone that wants to be taken seriously as a writer. The world is smaller than you think. Even if you don’t end up in court, if you plagiarise a successful writer everyone in your field will find out about it.
Write about what you know
If you are starting a new blog, this is the most important piece of advice I can give you.
Write about what you know and are passionate about. That way you won’t run out of ideas or be tempted to copy other people’s work.
Pick a subject in which you have expertise, and to which you can bring something original.
It may seem obvious, but don’t try and write about gardening if you are not a keen and experienced gardener. The fact that you water your Mum’s plants when she is on holiday won’t cut it. Experienced gardeners will know!
And inexperienced gardeners will ask you questions that you can’t answer. Reposting these questions on your facebook page so that others can do your work for you, will just make you look silly.
You won’t be able to generate your own material and rewriting every article on The Gardening Site, will just get you into trouble.
If you simply cannot resist writing about gardening, chart your own journey as you acquire knowledge and experience and blog about your own garden.
Most importantly, don’t be tempted to try and advise people on a practical subject that you just happen to have read up on. Your inexperience will show. And sooner or later you will give some bad, and possibly harmful advice.
What about general information
Even when your are writing with your own knowledge and experience, there are times when you will need to provide information that is outside your own personal experience.
It is perfectly reasonable to provide information on your website that has been covered elsewhere. Or to present a summary of information on a topic that is disputed or contentious. Provided that you go about this in the right way.
If you want to write an article on a single topic that has been covered by others before, remember the key rules –
- use multiple sources
- use an original angle
Never have anyone else’s document in front of you whilst writing. You will be too heavily influenced by the content, the author’s views, and advice. Put away your references and write with a clean sheet with a clear mind, so that everything you write is from your own head and with your own understanding.
Tips for bloggers that have been targeted by content thieves
If you discover that someone has stolen your stuff – don’t panic! And don’t charge in ‘all guns blazing’.
It is important to take action, and not be a victim, but the vast majority of scrapers will take down your content on a single polite request. There is no point in starting a war.
If your content has been copied and pasted, and your request is ignored, you can have it taken down by google.
There is more information on initiating a DMCA ‘take down’ in the article I linked to above.
If your content has been rewritten, as mine was, you may need to help to decide whether or not copyright infringement has actually taken place.
Start by getting at least half a dozen, sensible, objective people, familiar with your work, to look at the Rewriter’s site. Ask them to give you an honest opinion as to what is going on.
Don’t rely on your own judgement, you are too emotionally involved.
If your ‘witnesses’ are confident that the Rewriter’s articles have been adapted from yours, you can then confidently approach the culprit with a formal request to remove the material and desist from any such activity in the future.
If you can get some legal advice before you do this, so much the better. A request from a solicitor or an agent, carries a lot more weight.
If you are the victim of a rewriter or a miner, this is trickier to deal with. You should contact them in the first instance, asking them to take down the material they have rewritten from your site.
Most likely they will ignore you as they already know precisely what they are doing.
If this happens, don’t just ignore them back. I made the mistake of doing this with a rewriter some years ago and paid the penalty when he started to outrank me on google with my own stolen copy.
Revise and update your articles
The answer unfortunately is to spend some time and effort keeping track of the rewriter.
If he or she has good SEO skills they may add material into your original article that people searching the internet are looking for. This, in time, could lead to them outranking you.
Regularly check over any articles you have written that have been taken and rewritten by others.
Review those articles thoroughly.
Make sure they are the best they can be, and that they provide people with the answers they need.
Keep them fresh and updated when new information comes out on that topic. It’s up to you to remain competitive if you want to remain the best.
I have read a lot of lame excuses over plagiarism over the last few months. But the bottom line is – plagiarism sucks, it is almost impossible to prevent in advance, and it takes a huge amount of emotional energy and time to deal with.
Take comfort from the knowledge that if you are producing quality content on a regular basis, copying you is unlikely to do the copier any good.
It will damage his or her reputation in the blogosphere, which is a close knit community, and come back to bite him in the future.
What goes around comes around!
If you have made it to this point, you probably need a nice cup of tea or a stiff drink. This is one of the longer posts I have written.
I hope you never have this problem, but if you do, I hope this helps. And good luck with your blog!