Recently, Mary Nicklin posted a forum topic about copycats who had stolen her blog content. She asked what could be done about it. Jonathan Bailey, who runs Plagiarism Today (PT), was just the subject of an article in the Boston Globe (found via Steve Rubel’s Micro Persuasion blog, where Jonathan was also mentioned). On one of my blogs a few weeks ago, I wrote a post mentioning that cyberpunk author Neal Stephenson once said in one of his novels, written in the mid-1990s, that copyright violations would run rampant on the Internet and that there was probably nothing that could be done about it. Jonathan commented that he had several successes (over 95%), so I thought I’d conduct an (email) interview with him. My questions are italicized and bolded below, and his answers are block-quoted.
(1) For the record, what do you consider your profession to be?
My profession is in transition. I am working hard to make plagiarism fighting my full time job. I’ve taken some first steps to starting up a non-profit organization and consulting services. However, since those things are probably months away from paying the bills, I do a wide variety of temp work and odd jobs, most of them IT related.
All of this is counter to my education background though, which is that of a journalism and mass communications student that is well rounded in print journalism, advertising and, to a lesser degree, public relations.
(2) How long has your Plagiarism Today website/ weblog been running?
I’ve been running PT since June 2005. However, the first month I blogged in private, without a domain or any public presence, so that I could make sure that I was passionate enough about this to continue working on it for a long time to come.
I didn’t want to be one of those bloggers that jumps into it and quits after two weeks.
(3) Do you run it full-time, or as a supplement to work you do offline?
Like I said, I am working hard to make it my full time job. Right now I supplement my income some with a regular job but only work a few days per week. Most days, PT is my full time job.
(4) When was the first time you were plagiarised? Was it before your website existed? How did you find your lifted article? What did you do about it? Did you succeed?
I run another site, ravensrants.com. It’s my personal literature site and will be celebrating its tenth year online this November.
It was work on that site that was first stolen. It happened about four years ago. I was in an AIM chat with the readers of the site, something I could easily do then, and a reader asked me if I ran another site. I told him no, that Raven’s Rants was my only one and he informed me, very bewildered, that he had seen most of my content on another site.
He provided the link for me after some digging and, sure enough, nearly all of the content of my site, nearly six years worth of work, was posted and placed under another name, more specifically “Crimson” and he was using his own domain to do it.
I was somewhat fortunate at this point. I had studied copyright somewhat and knew, if nothing else, that my work was protected and that I had rights. I also survived mass media law and ethics class and knew that what he was doing was actionable in court.
Still, none of that prevented me from having the worst knee-jerk reaction in history. After politely signing off from the chat, I flew into rage the likes of which I have never seen. I frightened my significant other I was so angry.
After calming down enough to type I emailed my plagiarist a very poorly worded cease and desist letter. It wasn’t obscenity-laden but definitely unprofessional in every way.
It turned out that my plagiarist was really a 15-year-old punk who didn’t have the courage to face me. He forwarded my email on to his older cousin, whom had given him the domain and the hosting as a gift. The cousin contacted me and, since I was now calm enough to be rational, the two of us worked out a solution.
The site went down in pretty short order and that matter was resolved.
However, it got Crystal, my significant other, and I thinking about the issue of plagiarism and an eerie question loomed afterward. If one person could steal so much so easily? How many others have done the
We hastily developed the search techniques I now describe on PT and got the answer: hundreds. Every poem, nearly 100 of them at that time, had at least two plagiarized copies out there.
That began the second phase of the war, the one that continues today.
(5) What are some of the techniques you employ to find copycats? For example, do you use some unique combination of words in your articles?
I’ve been very fortunate that my works are textual (IE: poems, rants, short stories, etc.). Searching for my work has generally been a simple matter of punching in a unique phrase into Google with quote marks and seeing what comes up.
Even more fortunate is the Google Alerts tool, which completely automates the whole process of searching for my own content. Without Google Alerts, I’d doubt I’d have the time to protect all of my items.
(6) What are some of the techniques you use to get them to remove lifted content? Which is your most effective?
Generally, when I discover plagiarism, I try to be gentlemanly about it and write the plagiarist directly. I have a stock cease and desist letter that I send and only need to change out a few unique variables for each case.
If that fails, or the plagiarist can not be contacted through a reliable means, I simply contact the host of the site. If the host is American, which most are, I use a DMCA notice, which I also have a stock version of. Foreign hosts get a different notice which is much less formal and worded as if it were a more general abuse complaint.
If that fails, which it rarely does, I can use DMCA notices to remove sites from the major search engines and/or have their domain pulled if applicable. I am yet to every rely on those techniques, but know that they are there if needed.
As far as what method is most effective, definitely contacting hosts has a better outcome. Hosts remove work, generally, well over 90% of the time. Plagiarists generally only act 50% [or] less. If I didn’t feel it important to fire a warning shot, I would probably go straight to the host.
(7) What is your success rate?
My success rate is well over 95%. The cases that aren’t resolved are generally more trouble than they are worth affairs. I’ve never completely run out of options, not in the past few years. I’ve just opted to let them go as, at the time, more serious matters demanded my attention. With cases that have been serious and warrant bringing all arms to bear, the rate is pretty much 100%.
(8) Have you ever had to deal with repeat offenders? If so, how?
Several. Crimson himself was a repeat offender. Three months after being shut down he started up the exact same site at the exact same place with the exact same work. It was trivial to shut him down the second time, but still very annoying as I was already knee-deep in other plagiarism matters.
I have had a few others spring up on different sites. An example might be seeing a Myspace plagiarist simply pack up an move to Xanga.
I’ve also had several people that I suspect are repeat offenders (similar profiles, similar works taken, similar tastes, etc.) but have not been able to prove it as they use different information and different names.
Generally though, repeat offenders are rare. When someone gets shut down like that, it is unlikely that they will steal from the same sources again. They usually either go away for good or simply move on to another target.
(9) Have you ever had to threaten a lawsuit? Did you go ahead with it?
Had to? No. Threatening a lawsuit, beyond the general threats in a regular cease and desist letter, has never been needed. One plagiarist did push me too far though and nearly was sued.
When I moved to New Orleans three years ago, she positioned herself as a good friend of mine. She was from Picayune, Mississippi, which is less than two hours away, and knew the New Orleans literature scene well. She was going to help me establish myself here as a writer.
That never really happened but we did chat regularly and became pretty close friends, at least in the online sense of the word. One day though, during a regular plagiarism sweep, I discovered that she had been secretly plagiarizing my work and entering it into contests, often with great success.
To add insult to injury, she had even lifted pieces that I had helped her find on my site (she was looking in the wrong section).
For the first time ever, I gathered evidence and instructed my lawyer to sue. She was close enough to strike, the infringement, over thirty items, was enough warrant filing suit over and she had really struck a nerve.
She was saved by Hurricane Katrina. We were going to file the papers a week or two after the storm hit and, after we came back, the matter seemed unimportant. We would have filed sooner but I was waiting for paperwork from the copyright office.
That’s the only time that push ever really came to shove. To this day she swears that she isn’t the plagiarist. that she has no idea who this person was using her name, posting her personal information and promoting her band while stealing my literature was.
Sadly for her, I’d heard that story from at least a dozen plagiarists before.
(10) How do you feel about full-text RSS/ Atom web feeds?
While there’s little doubt that full feeds make one’s content more vulnerable, there’s three elements that need to be considered.
First, even if your site has a serious problem with splogging, most of your subscribers are not thieves. Even I, with such a huge plagiarism problem, enjoy a readership that is still 99.9% honest.
It seems unfair to punish the many to hinder the few.
Second, the technology to scrape content from a Web page is here and has been here for at least ten years. Software is already out there (I won’t mention the name) that is designed to scrape content from any templated site, blog or not. They even offer a tutorial for scraping the IMDB.
It’s only a matter of time before the feed itself is almost irrelevant to scraping. The permalink will likely be the key.
Finally, Feedburner, feed footers and, soon, plagiarism detection services can do a great job protecting a feed, full [or] truncated. Tracking down scrapers is getting easier by the day, it’s other kinds of plagiarism that are getting harder to stop.
So while there are many good arguments for using truncated feeds, content theft isn’t one of them. I keep my feeds full and use Feedburner to monitor them.
Works well enough but, then again, I’m somewhat shielded by my subject matter.
(11) How do you feel about the Creative Commons license?
I’ve been a fan of the CC organization since almost day one. I remember proudly displaying my 1.0 CC license a mere month after the organization launched. I’ve since kept up with the license changes and released everything I have ever written on the Web under one of their licenses.
I don’t know for certain if a CC license reduces plagiarism or not, but I do know that having a solid copyright policy is a good deterrent and, it seems logical enough, that giving people the opportunity to legitimately reuse a work reduces the illegitimate uses.
Regardless, it isn’t about reducing plagiarism so much as allowing fair sharing of a work. It is worth noting though that all CC licenses, these days, require attribution and that the option to no require attribution was removed after the 1.0 license versions because it was so unpopular (97% opted to require it).
Clearly, both the CC organization and the majority of CC users are against plagiarism of their content, otherwise, they’d probably opt for another license or simply dedicate the work to the public domain.
(12) Do you write any other blogs?
I do still work on ravensrants.com, though I’ve taken something of a hiatus in recent months as PT has taken off. Beyond that though, I don’t post anywhere else regularly.
To date, I haven’t done any guest blogging, or article writing, though I might be working on copy for a new startup soon, and I haven’t been invited on a podcast.
Still, these are all things that I’m hoping to do as I love branching out and trying new things.
Thanks to Jonathan for the valuable information about protecting copyrights. If you want to learn more about fighting plagiarism, visit his site or subscribe to his web feed. You can also study the “Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works”. (There are many sources; one is here, and in PDF form.)
I first encountered the Berne Convention when I was researching copyright laws and issues around the time I first started publishing my now defunct print magazine. While there’s more to this Convention than I realized (and it never took place in 1972, despite what I’ve been saying for years), probably one of the more important points is that the copyright rules set forth were supposedly adopted by every country that is a member of the UN (United Nations). If you are a citizen of a UN country, and if Jonathan’s handy advice does not suffice for you in getting copycats to stop, you have legitimate legal recourse.
Have you been plagiarised or outright copycatted? Have you done anything about it? If so, what?
I just wanted to drop by and say thank you to everyone who commented and visited. I’m glad that you appreciated Raj’s article and hope you found it useful. It was an honor to be a part of it.
Special thanks has to go to Raj though, I know he’s busy but he came up with some very well thought out questions that really got me thinking. I also have to thank him and his brackets for some great saves for my terrible late night writing.
On that note, I really need a proofreader…
Thank you again everyone. Please don’t hesitate to write me if there’s any way that I can help!
Jonathan also gave a great example how to react to an expected spike of visitors because of media coverage. To his regulars he gave the information that there is an interview in the Boston Globe so the site may be a little slow. And then he welcomes the newcomers because of this article:
Is that a beautiful and polite piece of a welcome message? ‘En passant’ the French would say …
Thanks Raj, it goes to show that you can protect your online ip after all!
Raj– this is excellent. Thanks so much for sharing this.
Really, thanks go to Jonathan for his own hard work and sharing his knowledge with us.
I’d still like to hear from other readers about their experiences and concerns.
Oh,and apologies for not mentioning that Darren also mentioned Jonathan yesterday. There’s a bit of a discussion going on there.
… for publishing the interview here. As Chris said it’s very interesting reading it!
smart questions Raj most of them deserve their own articles here
Great stuff, interesting read there Raj