The Shame Game: Why Mob Justice Doesn’t Work

Your average webmaster/blogger/administrator isn’t a copyright law expert. When they discover plagiarism of their hard work, they’re often very lost on exactly how to handle it. So, they turn to their colleagues for advice, colleagues who are often just as ill-informed, and hatch ineffective schemes that do more harm than good.

The most common of these schemes is to shame the plagiarist into submission, usually by calling as much attention to the theft as possible.

Though several bloggers have reported a great deal of success with that tactic, it typically is one of the worst ways of handling plagiarism matters. It’s destructive, counter-productive and often plays into the hands of the worst plagiarists.

To make matters worse, as someone who has used shame in the past (and still does to some degree), I can say safely I’ve never closed a case because of it.

Why Shame Can Work

Shame, when it does work, does so because people don’t want to be associated with the word “plagiarist”. Plagiarism has been called suicide for aspiring authors and most people, even those actively engaging in the activity, will do what they can to avoid it.

In the blogosphere, the threat of shame is much more intense than in the regular Internet. Word goes around blogging circles almost instantly and search engines like Technorati lists new posts immediately. One call of plagiarism and, next thing you know, a virtual mob is beating down the plagiarist’s door, posting comments, sending email and basically pounding him/her into submission.

Though brutal, it can be a very effective way of shutting down a plagiarist.

The Problems With Shame

The problem with this approach is that its exactly what many plagiarists want. Many of those who steal aren’t worried about their reputations and are only interested in getting traffic to their site. If that’s the case, then mob justice plays right into their hands, driving countless visitors to their door. These visitors will improve their ranking and, quite possibly, click advertisements along the way, even if by accident.

Also, since Google and other search engines make no distinction between “good” links and “bad” links, all of these links pointing to the plagiarist count toward his or her pagerank and can actually go to great lengths to improve them in the search engines.

(Note: It is possible to use the rel=”nofollow” tag in the link to prevent Google from indexing it. Most blogging software, however, does not do this automatically. Thanks to Sebastian for reminding me of that fact.)

But even worse than actually helping the plagiarist is the fact that mobs tend to take things too far in their pursuit of a plagiarist. They often leave threatening messages, harass the accused or make libelous remarks regarding him or her. While plagiarism is definitely a civil and potentially a criminal offence, it does not warrant this kind of behavior and can land well-meaning people in jail.

Also, in the event of a public confrontation, many simply turn the tables on their accusers by saying that they wrote the work originally and that the accuser, and legitimate owner, is the thief. Though this is usually very easily disproven, it still casts a shadow of doubt on the creator’s veracity, even if only a faint one.

Besides, with the anonymity of the Internet, most people who are shamed into submitting simply change their name and move on elsewhere, starting over the whole cycle. There is no permanent scarlet letter to be doled out, nothing lasting to be gained.

In the end, there are just too many ways that mob justice can turn out badly. Though it’s tempting to blow the whistle on a thief and let the masses clobber him, there’s much better ways to handle this.

The Best Approach

Think about it, if someone broke into your house and you saw him later on the street. Would you tell everyone around that he’s a thief and let them tear him limb from limb? Of course not. If you knew who had done it, you would go to the police and let them handle it. Only the most foolish souls would try to handle it themselves and no civilized person would turn it over to a mob.

Plagiarism works the same way.

Your best weapons in dealing with plagiarism are a good cease and desist letter, a solid DMCA notice, good tact when handling administrators and the ability to do some old-fashioned detective work. The ability to track people, locate their hosts and work to get the site shut down is much more effective in the long run than the ability to drum up a mob on command.

This isn’t to say that shame doesn’t have its uses. If you can break through the veil of the Internet and do it in a way that doesn’t attract a mob or promote the plagiarist, it can apply some added pressure and serve as an extra deterrent.

An example of this Sebastian, linked above, who uses custom shame pages with all of the pertinent information regarding the plagiarizing business. The goal of the page is to outrank the thief’s site in search engines in order to push them into relenting. Though I don’t completely agree with his tactics, they are very effective.

However, Sebastian’s case is also somewhat unique in that A) His content, search engine information, is usually only stolen by businesses, which are easy to get information and value their brand name very highly and B) He’s a search engine expert who can quickly get the ranking that he needs to make it work. Others will find this process both very difficult and painstakingly slow as they put up with both anonymous individuals and a lack of search engine clout.

However, the main point of this type of shaming isn’t to stop existing plagiarism but to deter future plagiarists. It lets people know you’re serious about stopping plagiarism and that you’ve done so successfully in the past. If plagiarists see that, they are much less likely to steal.

One of the best ways to do that is to publicly showcase those who have been caught before, highlighting carefully what happened to them. Much like ancient civilizations impaled captured soldiers outside the gates of town, it’s a move that gives people cause to think before they launch an attack.

Sure, not everyone heeds the warning, but you’d be amazed how many people do.

[tags]Plagiarism, Copyright Infringement, Content Theft, Blogging[/tags]

13 Responses to The Shame Game: Why Mob Justice Doesn’t Work

  1. loomis says:

    What always confused me is why plagerize in the first place? The point of the blog is to express yourself and your views. Are people that empty upstairs where they feel the need to copy someone elses thoughts? If that is the case, cancel your blog!

  2. I have just encountered a plagiarist blog which has taken one of my posts. It seems to be blatantly doing this – I am not sure why – but I found it quite upsetting – as my post included a number of unique and quite personal observations which this other blog is now crediting to another person. The text has been completely lifted verbatim and only subtly edited.
    Full details can be found at my blog (above).
    I would ask people not to visit the site in question though as I agree this is perhaps what they want. That is up to you though obviously…
    I received this email below from Blogger when I complained,,,and was wondering if anyone could offer advice on it.
    Is it worth pursuing their recommendations?
    My thoughts now, are perhaps it is just best to ignore this unethical trampling on my personal creative outlet and not waste any more time on it.
    But again, that is confusing as it falls into the plagiariser’s hands and is what they feed on in some cases, I suspect.
    It would not bother me if it was not so blatant…
    There are some callous people out there in my view and this is just as bad as breaking into your home and desecrating a family photo.
    Although of course, I am aware, if you post on a blog – you are creating the possibility for these infringements to occur.
    I have been really enjoying blogging recently and am relatively new to it – I might add that it has put me off as well and I question whether I want to continue with it.
    It’s akin to going out the house or going to the pub with a friendly, communal, sociable attitude – and then getting punched by a complete stranger for no reasson – and then thinking well, maybe I should just stay at home in future.
    Anyway, here is the email from Blogger. I hope all this is of help or of interest to someone and thanks for providing this site…

    Hello,

    Thanks for writing in. It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged
    infringement that comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the
    text of which can be found at the U.S. Copyright Office website:
    http://lcWeb.loc.gov/copyright/ ) and other applicable intellectual
    property laws, which may include removing or disabling access to material
    claimed to be the subject of infringing activity.

    To file a notice of infringement with us, you must provide a written
    communication (by fax or regular mail, not by email) that sets forth the
    items specified below. Please note that pursuant to that Act, you may be
    liable to the alleged infringer for damages (including costs and
    attorneys’ fees) if you materially misrepresent that you own an item when
    you in fact do not. Accordingly, if you are not sure whether you have the
    right to request removal from our service, we suggest that you first
    contact an attorney.

    To expedite our ability to process your request, please use the following
    format (including section numbers):

    1. Identify in sufficient detail the copyrighted work that you believe has
    been infringed upon. This must include identification of specific posts,
    as opposed to entire sites. Posts must be referenced by either the dates
    in which they appear or the permalink of the post. For example,
    http://example.blogspot.com/archives/2003_01_21….

    2. Identify the material that you claim is infringing upon the copyrighted
    work listed in item #1 above.

    YOU MUST IDENTIFY EACH POST BY PERMALINK OR DATE THAT ALLEGEDLY CONTAINS
    INFRINGING MATERIAL. The permalink for a post is usually found by clicking
    on the timestamp of the post.

    3. Provide information reasonably sufficient to permit Blogger to contact
    you (email address is preferred).

    4. Include the following statement: “I have a good faith belief that use
    of the copyrighted materials described above on the allegedly infringing
    web pages is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the
    law.”

    5. Include the following statement: “I swear, under penalty of perjury,
    that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the
    copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an
    exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.”

    6. Sign the paper.

    7. Send the written communication to the following address:

    Google, Inc.
    Attn: Blogger, DMCA complaints
    1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy
    Mountain View, CA 94043

    OR Fax to:

    (650) 618-1499, Attn: Blogger, DMCA complaints

    Sincerely,
    Blogger Support

  3. I have just encountered a plagiarist blog which has taken one of my posts. It seems to be blatantly doing this – I am not sure why – but I found it quite upsetting – as my post included a number of unique and quite personal observations which this other blog is now crediting to another person. The text has been completely lifted verbatim and only subtly edited.
    Full details can be found at my blog (above).
    I would ask people not to visit the site in question though as I agree this is perhaps what they want. That is up to you though obviously…
    I received this email below from Blogger when I complained,,,and was wondering if anyone could offer advice on it.
    Is it worth pursuing their recommendations?
    My thoughts now, are perhaps it is just best to ignore this unethical trampling on my personal creative outlet and not waste any more time on it.
    But again, that is confusing as it falls into the plagiariser’s hands and is what they feed on in some cases, I suspect.
    It would not bother me if it was not so blatant…
    There are some callous people out there in my view and this is just as bad as breaking into your home and desecrating a family photo.
    Although of course, I am aware, if you post on a blog – you are creating the possibility for these infringements to occur.
    I have been really enjoying blogging recently and am relatively new to it – I might add that it has put me off as well and I question whether I want to continue with it.
    It’s akin to going out the house or going to the pub with a friendly, communal, sociable attitude – and then getting punched by a complete stranger for no reasson – and then thinking well, maybe I should just stay at home in future.
    Anyway, here is the email from Blogger. I hope all this is of help or of interest to someone and thanks for providing this site…

    Hello,

    Thanks for writing in. It is our policy to respond to notices of alleged
    infringement that comply with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (the
    text of which can be found at the U.S. Copyright Office website:
    http://lcWeb.loc.gov/copyright/ ) and other applicable intellectual
    property laws, which may include removing or disabling access to material
    claimed to be the subject of infringing activity.

    To file a notice of infringement with us, you must provide a written
    communication (by fax or regular mail, not by email) that sets forth the
    items specified below. Please note that pursuant to that Act, you may be
    liable to the alleged infringer for damages (including costs and
    attorneys’ fees) if you materially misrepresent that you own an item when
    you in fact do not. Accordingly, if you are not sure whether you have the
    right to request removal from our service, we suggest that you first
    contact an attorney.

    To expedite our ability to process your request, please use the following
    format (including section numbers):

    1. Identify in sufficient detail the copyrighted work that you believe has
    been infringed upon. This must include identification of specific posts,
    as opposed to entire sites. Posts must be referenced by either the dates
    in which they appear or the permalink of the post. For example,
    http://example.blogspot.com/archives/2003_01_21_example_archive.html#2104575.

    2. Identify the material that you claim is infringing upon the copyrighted
    work listed in item #1 above.

    YOU MUST IDENTIFY EACH POST BY PERMALINK OR DATE THAT ALLEGEDLY CONTAINS
    INFRINGING MATERIAL. The permalink for a post is usually found by clicking
    on the timestamp of the post.

    3. Provide information reasonably sufficient to permit Blogger to contact
    you (email address is preferred).

    4. Include the following statement: “I have a good faith belief that use
    of the copyrighted materials described above on the allegedly infringing
    web pages is not authorized by the copyright owner, its agent, or the
    law.”

    5. Include the following statement: “I swear, under penalty of perjury,
    that the information in the notification is accurate and that I am the
    copyright owner or am authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an
    exclusive right that is allegedly infringed.”

    6. Sign the paper.

    7. Send the written communication to the following address:

    Google, Inc.
    Attn: Blogger, DMCA complaints
    1600 Amphitheatre Pkwy
    Mountain View, CA 94043

    OR Fax to:

    (650) 618-1499, Attn: Blogger, DMCA complaints

    Sincerely,
    Blogger Support

  4. I have someone who has stoilen my content, then used it to beat me in the search engines.

    This is the site that is stealing content, he even has the book for sale.

    http://emilecoue.wwwhubs.com/tpoa.html

    here is my site which has the original work which I edited and formated.

    http://www.auto-suggestion.com

  5. I have someone who has stoilen my content, then used it to beat me in the search engines.

    This is the site that is stealing content, he even has the book for sale.

    http://emilecoue.wwwhubs.com/tpoa.html

    here is my site which has the original work which I edited and formated.

    http://www.auto-suggestion.com

  6. [...] is little doubt that shame can be an effective tool in dealing with plagiarism. Even in a society where “copyright” has become an ugly [...]

  7. [...] the public nature of this list is disturbing. I’ve written before about the Shame Game and the reasons why mob justice doesn’t work. Shame can be a deterrent, but it also leads to [...]

  8. [...] Public is Very Risky: I’ve spoken many times before why going public with a plagiarism fight is risky. In addition to legal issues such as libel and harassment, one also has to consider the energy that [...]

  9. laurence says:

    sometimes people are not trying to plagiarize,but simply unblock their own flow of ideas,concepts and thoughts.on the other hand if you are caught with somebody’s work that’s a different story,like myself to unclogg my own pipes of creativity,by reading other samples of work from different people,this helps to give a clear perspective and reinstates my own flavour and originality

  10. [...] I am loathe to encourage shame tactics when it comes to resolving plagiarism disputes. However, it is hard to argue with the results in [...]

  11. [...] calls, emails or other contacts she may have received. These are the dangers behind mob justice and a reason I discourage the practice.Finally, I don’t wish to see Dawes’ career be completely ruined by this either. If she [...]

  12. [...] such as with a blogger, the issue gets thornier. Though you can call out the plagiarist publicly, that’s a risky strategy and could actually cause more legal trouble for you than the plagiarist. Furthermore, it [...]

  13. [...] 2005, before the site had officially launched, I wrote an article about why shaming is, generally, a poor strategy for dealing with plagiarism. Much of the time, the situation is better handled through other means as it results in a quicker, [...]

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