How to Handle Plagiarism

Sunday, March 02, 2008

They say that imitation is the best form of flattery, but if you've ever experienced someone plagiarizing your website copy, then you know that it feels more like a pain in the derriere and not at all flattering.

One way to quickly learn if someone is stealing your work and passing it off as their own is to run a Copyscape search. With Copyscape you can enter your url or a specific block of text and within a matter of seconds it will tell you other sites with verbatim text. Unfortunately, this doesn't work for photographs, just text. Copyscape is free for the first few results. To receive full results, the cost is 5 cents a search, with a minimum purchase of $5 (good for a year), which is still a great deal to access that kind of information.

So what do you do if you find that someone is claiming your original idea as theirs? There are different opinions on this, but usually it can be resolved fairly simply and without having to involve lawyers or expensive legal processes.

1) Calm down. Do not fire off an email when you are angry. Seriously, if the situation eventually winds up going to court, your biting, sarcastic words or unsolicited advice on business ethics will not paint you as a savvy business person. Conduct yourself professionally at every turn so that you will be above reproach at all times.

2) Run a search on both their site as well as yours on the Wayback Machine and take screenshots of when the text first appeared on your site and when it first appeared on theirs.

The Wayback Machine is an archive system that has records of websites dating all the way back to 1996 and all the changes they have gone through. It is fun to look back and see how far you've come, but it is also good in cases like these where you need to prove ownership of what you wrote. This is another reason to be careful of what you put on the internet; just because you delete it does not mean it's gone!

3) Send a polite, professional cease and desist letter to the owner via email, along with the dated screenshots from The Way Back machine. Do not get personal in this email. Do not make attacks. Bite your tongue, or your fingers as the case may be, and keep everything objective and to the point. When I have had to send these, I have given a time frame for the content to be off their site.

Most people copy content for their websites because they honestly think they won't be caught. If they are focused on local weddings in upstate New York, they assume that someone in California will not be looking at their site. So usually, once you send the first email, with evidence that you had the copy first, they will take it off their site. Typically you'll get no reply at all and the content will just disappear or they'll take the content down and send you a reply saying that they had no idea and their web designer must have copied the text. Whether this is true or not is really a moot point; the content is down, so move on and don't stress over it. This is the time where you can kick back and start to enjoy the flattery of someone thinking your writing was brilliant enough to copy.

The above is the ideal scenario for a non-ideal situation. So what do you do when the person is stubborn and refuses to change their site even though they are clearly in the wrong? Here's where it can get tricky, and take this advice with a grain of salt as I am not an attorney!

Run a WhoIs search and find out who their web host is (Yahoo, Go Daddy, 1 and 1, etc). Send the web host a letter via email letting them know that this business is posting plagiarized content as their own and that you have documentation to prove that it is in fact yours. A website that hosts with these companies agrees to a terms of use policy that does not allow for plagiarism, so the web host will take down the offender's site if they continue to post stolen content as their own. These major companies do not want to entangle themselves in unnecessary lawsuits, so they tend to hold a zero tolerance policy on plagiarism.

If you plan on calling the person out on your blog and letting the world know they are copying you, then I would recommend that method as a very last resort after everything else has been tried and has failed to work. I personally feel it makes you look like a bully and that it is not a classy way to handle things. Everyone makes errors in judgment and these sorts of things really should be settled privately, even if the person deserves the bad publicity. If the tables were turned, and you had plagiarized content (although you wouldn't), would you rather be rebuked privately with grace and forgiveness or dragged through the blogging streets with a scarlet 'P' on your chest? You may deserve the latter, but I'm guessing you'd be grateful and more motivated to do better by receiving the former. Treat others as you would like to be treated.

There have been times where I've randomly come across sites that have plagiarized the site of someone I know personally. In this instance, send a quick note to your contact with the link and let them handle it from there. I know that I've appreciated it when people have let me know of others who have copied me. It is not your place to get involved any more than that.

Unfortunately, with the web as expansive as it is, it is not really a matter of if your content will be copied, but when. I know that there are other ways to handle these types of situations, so if you have experienced someone stealing your content, what steps did you take to resolve it?

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