The comprehensive guide to dealing with content plagiarism
Plagiarism makes me a little crazy.
I've had my content stolen time and again. I've developed some very creative responses. If I could invent a way to poke content thieves in the eye via the internet, I would. Instead, I'm going to take a shot at explaining what it is, how you can get in trouble, and how to avoid it.
What it is
Plagiarism is any unauthorized use of another person's ideas where you pass those ideas off as your own.
Key terms here:
Unauthorized. If I say, "Sure, Mr. Butt, go ahead and cut-and-paste my post onto your blog," then it's not plagiarism.
Ideas. It does not have to be a precise copy. Stealing the idea is enough. So rewriting doesn't save you.
Passed off as your own. This phrase is the source of a lot of debate. If you copy a blog post from my site, and then include a link at the very bottom that says "As seen on" and include a link, is it still plagiarism? Read below.
You can disagree if you want. But here are specific examples:
Copying content w/o attribution
This falls into the 'duh' category. Yet sites still do it. Sometimes, they use automated scrapers that grab content from your site and publish it on theirs. Sometimes, they literally cut-and-paste.
It's lazy. And obvious. And just plain obnoxious.
Copying content with attribution
Copying an article and then providing a sad little attribution at the bottom is not enough. You're still stealing. You must cite the original author in your own writing. You're citing them for contributing the idea, not the whole bloody article.
Rephrasing an article is still plagiarism. Here's a great example I found:
On the home page of my company's web site, we say:
The alphabet soup of Internet marketing is complex and ever changing: SEO, PPC, CRO. What does it all mean?
Then, some clown took our writing and pulled out the thesaurus:
The acronym salad of Internet marketing is subtly nuanced and constantly evolving.
Acronym salad. I may leave them alone and use their writing under the heading "Don't let this happen to you."
Use of images, videos, etc. without permissions
If you re-use an image in any way, you're stealing. 'nuff said. I learned a hard lesson about this: My company used a Demotivational Poster from Cheezburger. You know 'em: Posters that have images like an eagle grabbing a fish and then the title "YOUR DAY - It's about to get worse."
Turned out, the person who made the poster used an image from a major stock photography web site. We then used the poster on our blog. The stock photo web site contacted us with a bill for $3,000.
That was a valuable lesson.
The lesson: It's your fault
Many times, when I contact someone about plagiarism, they blame a writer or designer they hired. I get it. You're busy, you hire someone, they seem legit. Or you use a demotivational poster and assume it's OK. Unfortunately, if the plagiarism attracts the attention of, say, a huge stock photo company, you're still liable.
Stay out of trouble
Want to reduce your risk? Next time you get content from a third party:
- Copy one reasonably unique phrase from the content.
- Search for it on Google in quotes.
- Here's an example for us: I searched for "SEO is synonymous with ROI in internet marketing" and got this great result
- Note that some genius even used that copy on his/her Facebook page. It'd be less work to just write it yourself.
- If you're using an image, use Google Image Search. You can at least catch obvious plagiarism.
What to avoid
You can also avoid a lot of headaches by steering clear of this kind of stuff:
- "Automated SEO" tools
- "Blogging automation" tools
- Anything that includes the words "automation" or "easy" or "overnight" in the context of content creation
- Writers who charge $5, unless you really know they're legit
- Memes. Many memes use plagiarized images
- Any images or media where you can't identify the sources and get permission
- Anything else that seems too good to be true
- Detect theft of your content/ideas
- You can use the cut-and-paste trick I describe above, or Google Image Search.
- To detect really lazy plagiarists (that's redundant), give a CSS file or image file on your site a really unique name. Then search for it using NerdyData. You would think most people would do more than cut-and-paste your source code. But they don't.
If (when) you catch someone else
When you check, chances are you'll find a kabillion pages copying you. Here's what you do:
- Don't lose your mind and start spamming them with nasty e-mails. It's not worth it (trust me, I've done it)
- Don't contact the FBI or other authorities. It turns out the Interpol has bigger fish to fry
- Decide if they're worth pursuing
- Check their authority using a tool like MajesticSEO or OpenSite Explorer
- Check their Social Authority via Followerwonk
- Check their off-web brand and presence
- If the site seems like an automated, low-authority turd, ignore them
- If they look like they're for real, or are stealing your ideas to compete with you, or might end up outranking you, proceed
- Contact the site owner. Specify the page, the text and the page on your site
- Use WHOIS and contact that person
- Use the contact us form
- Comment on the blog (always good for a laugh)
What to say
-Try to avoid e-mails or comments that being with "Dear Butthead" or similar. Start out polite, or at least skip the swear words. Specify the page on your site from which they obtained the copy or idea, and the page on their site that contains the stolen content or idea.
- Give them 48 hours (no more) to take down the content.
- If 48 hours pass and they haven't taken action, either:
- Get more persistent and tap into your network to get more folks commenting, e-mailing or otherwise calling out the plagiarist. Sounds harsh, but it works well, and remember, they stole the stuff
- Wait a little longer. Then hire a lawyer. I've never gotten this far. If you do, think carefully. This is a major expense and hassle. It needs to be serious theft before it's worth it
Keep in mind...
-mKeep some perspective. In spite of my visceral hatred of plagiarism, I've learned some (a teeny bit of) restraint:
- Plagiarism rarely affects rankings. I think I've seen it happen 2-3 times in 18 years
- Weigh cost/benefit. If some pathetic business that does everything from build websites to sell copiers is stealing your content, you might want to let it slide. Chances are they won't be around for long anyway
- The internet has made plagiarism more prevalent. But not necessarily more damaging. If Billy Butthead steals your entire site, and 4 people visit it, is that real harm? No. Is it illegal? Yes
- Worry when plagiarism could reach your core audience: Your customers, your colleagues or your readers. Because that's theft that dilutes the value of your work product
- A real threat must be more than a crappy low-ranking site. Otherwise, you could spend the rest of your days chasing down these yahoos
- As infuriating as plagiarism is, I wouldn't call it a world or even business-ending problem. So do as I say, not as I do: Take a deep breath. Exhale. Remember you don't get paid for lambasting plagiarists. Move on if you can.