To a person who enjoys the creative process, a plagiarist can seem like an alien being. Someone who can feel satisfaction from a falsehood and the most uncreative of acts is a strange notion to many. Yet, everyday, thousands of people do just that.
Even the Web 2.0 crowd, with their love for mashups, compilations and remixes, often don’t fully understand plagiarists. Plagiarism runs counter to the ideals of the community, including cooperation, respect and sharing. This, sadly, has caused some to lose sight of the bad guys that are out there and fail to take simple precautions to guard against it. This is a sad, and often frustrating, element of the latest trends.
Despite this, plagiarists are actually simple to understand. All one has to do is be willing to crawl inside their mind for a bit. While doing so, for most, is neither pleasant nor easy, it’s an important step not just to understand why plagiarism occurs, but also how to combat it.
The Types of Plagiarists
Before one can really understand a plagiarist, they first have to realize that not all plagiarists are created equal. They have different motives for what they do and have very differing attitudes about the morality of what they are doing.
With that being said, most plagiarists fit into one of five different categories, each with their own reasons, patterns and ideology.
Who They Are: The profiteer plagiarist is in it solely for the money. They are the ones that work on monetizing your content directly, either by surrounding it with ads or by selling it outright. This is the category that most sploggers will fit into as well as many of your essay and article farms.
Though profiteers, when confronted, will often attempt to ethically justify plagiarism, usually with the “nothing new under the sun” argument, most try to just avoid the ethical and legal implications of plagiarism. They, for the most part, are truly uninterested in them. They are simply finding the easiest way to financial gain and any ethical or legal scrapes are just part of the process.
What They Take: Anything. If they feel they can make a dollar selling it or putting it ads around it, they will lift it. This may depend on keywords, as with sploggers, sheer volume, as with other kinds of search engine spam, or the topic of the piece, as with essay farms.
Threat Level: Very High. All things considered, profiteers are likely the most dangerous. Their intent is purely commercial, their distribution is very wide, the potential for confusion and dilution is very high and they are notoriously durable. They plagiarize often, in what is seen as the most heinous way and they are almost impossible to completely stop.
How to Stop Them: Profiteers are much like lightening. They are taking the path of least resistance and the objective is money. The easiest way to thwart a profiteer is to increase the resistance. If you increase the difficulty or effort required, they will likely move on to another target, be it a new scam or new plagiarism victim. The easiest way to do that is to simply cut off the funds. If the plagiarist uses Adsense, file a notice with them. If the plagiarist, uses a credit card company to sell the works, consider notifying them.
Once the money is threatened, profiteers usually move on. It is much easier to change directions than it is to start all over again.
Who They Are: To an outside observer, the professional plagiarist and the profiteer look a great deal alike. However, the motivations and actions are, in truth, very different.
Professional plagiarists have no interest in making money directly from the work itself. Instead, they want to use the work to further their own career. Kevin Corazza, the plagiarist the sent a cease and desist letter to his victim, is a classic example of a professional plagiarist. He didn’t sell the photographs or put ads around them, he just used the photos in a bid to further his own budding photography career. Most famous journalism plagiarists also fall into this category.
The logic behind such plagiarism is questionable. How one would handle a request to do real work when building a reputation on stolen pieces is a difficult question. Still, professional plagiarists do seem to understand that, ethically and legally, plagiarism is wrong. However, they usually feel forced into it, often by intense competition or a lack of personal skill.
What They Take: Professional plagiarists will take whatever is relevant to their field. Photographers will take photos, writers will take articles, musicians will take music, etc. The fundamental difference is that they are only targeting things that may lead to future work. If there is a market for a certain kind of creative work, odds are professional plagiarists are working within it.
Threat Level: Very High. Though professional plagiarists may not take as much as the profiteer, their claims of ownership are more believable, making dilution a bigger problem, and since they generally lift from their fellow professionals, the potential harm they can do to one’s livelihood is very high. Fortunately, they are easier to stop, though they can often be very difficult to detect.
How to Stop Them: Professional plagiarists want to improve their career prospects by using other people’s work as their own. As such, the thing they fear most is the shame of being called out as a plagiarist. Professional plagiarists are rare birds in that they are cases where shame and threats of shame can be very effective, albeit very risky. Some professional plagiarists will fight tooth and nail to protect their ill-gotten reputation, others will simply duck and cover. Most seem to fall into the second category, likely because their plagiarism revolves around their career, not them personally.
Still, the quickest way to handle such plagiarists is to shut down their sites. In most cases, their site is their profession and, by closing it down with a DMCA notice or a cease and desist letter, you put the brakes on it very quickly. It becomes clear quickly that copyright infringement is not a shortcut to career success.
Who They Are: Academic plagiarists are students, teachers, professors and staff members that take claim other people’s work as their own for use within the equation system. They could be a professor working on a major research paper or a high school student doing a book report, the goal is the same: To get the grade.
Academic plagiarists know that plagiarism is wrong. They read it in school handbooks, course syllabi and countless other sources. Still, they do it either out of laziness or fear. Either they don’t want to do their own work, or they feel as if they can’t. Whether it is self-doubt, external pressures or just plain laziness is often hard to tell.
What They Take: Academic plagiarists generally take from other academic sources. Essays, reports, studies, dissertations and theses are all at risk.
Threat Level: Very Low. Though academic plagiarists are very large in number, their audience is usually just one teacher or a small group of supervisors. Academic plagiarists also lift very little, usually only a few items, and do so from other educational sources, making it easy to tell who came first. Academic plagiarists, generally, do little to dilute the market for the original work and often even have permission for such theft (IE: Essay farms). Plagiarists that publish content in journals, on the other hand, can cause more serious problems for copyright holders.
How to Stop Them: Academic plagiarism is unique in that whole companies are founded to help stop it . Likewise, when caught, systems are in place to punish and deter such plagiarists. Even though the threat to the copyright holder is fairly low, the threat to the plagiarist is extremely high.
Still, academic plagiarists want the grade. Be it a literal grade or just approval from their peers, the academic plagiarists just wants the thumbs up. The systems in place are designed to prevent that from happening. If you, by some long shot, catch an academic plagiarist it is usually best to just turn them over to the school or body that they submitted the work to. It is the most sure-fire way to deny them the grade, and the incentive, to plagiarize. It also helps out in clearing your name and validating your work.
Who They Are: The idea that many people are not who they claim to be online is nothing new. The Web is filled with frauds including fake profiles, fake Web sites and fake logs. However, what is less talked about is the fact that plagiarism and content theft often plays a critical role in the illusion. Stolen photos, works of literature and even entire profiles are all par for the course.
Frauds are using the Internet to create an alternate, perhaps more ideal, version of themselves. Though their profile may mix fact and fiction and may even be targeted at people they know in person, the goal is to make themselves look and feel better about themselves. Generally, one finds that they suffer from very low self esteem and many are, in truth, compulsive liars both online and off.
Their views on the ethical nature of plagiarism may vary wildly and many are confused about the legal standing of it. Frauds are some of the first to falsely proclaim that, since they didn’t charge for it, no law was broken.
What They Take: Frauds tend to take whatever supports the illusion they want to present. In most cases tha that involves images, especially “self photos” and icons, short works of literature, especially poetry, and profile information. Also at risk snippets of HTML code, formatting and background images and anything else that might be of use to someone building a profile.
Threat Level: Varies. Frauds rarely take a great amount of work, they focus more on quality than quantity. Many will search for hours to find exactly the work they wanted, even though they probably could have created their own in the same amount of time. The believably, viewership and potential for dilution will vary wildly depending on how popular the plagiarist is, how good their lie holds up and where they post the works. While they are almost always more dangerous than an academic plagiarist, they generally don’t reach the potential for harm of a professional or profiteer. The exception being if the plagiarist manages to achieve a higher level of notoriety than his or her victim.
How To Stop Them: Theoretically, shame is the ideal approach to stop such plagiarists. They are seeking personal glory and a boosted reputation, attack that and they should relent. However, frustrated will defend their illusion to the hilt. They will treat an attack on their reputation, even a deserved one, as an unjust assault on them personally. They almost always fight back, their stake in the illusion is just too high, and between sock puppets and friends who have bought into the lies, you are almost always outnumbered.
Though these fights can be and usually are won, the are pyrrhic victories that are very draining emotionally and time-wise. Freudians are, generally, masters of drama and know how to make things difficult for someone wishing to burst the illusion they’ve created.
Instead, for the most part, the best approach is to shut the offending site down either through a cease and desist or a DMCA notice. Freudians spend a large amount of time carefully crafting their illusion, selecting works, images and layouts to steal while building up their online reputation and popularity. Destroying that is usually a heavy blow. They may or may not stop plagiarizing all together, but they will almost certainly not revisit the same works.
Who They Are: The idiot is the person who made a genuine mistake. Be it forgotten attribution, bad formatting or something else altogether innocent, it was an honest mistake that anyone could have made.
Finding a true idiot can be a very difficult task. Most plagiarists, when forced to confront their actions, will plead stupidity and try to dodge blame that way. However, in my experience, less than one half of one percent even possibly could be idiots.
Signs to look for include no direct claim of authorship, proper attribution on other works or any potential formatting issues, such as length restrictions, that could have caused problems.
In the end, the idiot is such a rare occurrences that it almost isn’t worth mentioning. Still, to make this article as complete as reasonably possible, I’ve decided to add it on.
What They Take: More often than not, they tend to be inexperienced Web users and that causes them to closely mirror the Fraud in terms of what material is used. By in large, it is the type of stuff that would wind up in a Myspace or Xanga profile.
Threat Level: Low. True idiots never take much, you can only repeat an accident so many times before you show intent. Their readership is usually low and since there is no direct claim of ownership, just an implied one, the danger of confusion is relatively small. They also never commercialize the content they reuse.
How To Stop Them: Sadly, the best way to handle an Idiot is to treat him exactly like a fraud, shut the site down. It is impossible in many cases to distinguish an idiot from a fraud and so few Idiots exist that it’s not worth the effort to play nice with everyone that pleads stupidity.
It may seem cruel, but life is filled with situations where we are punished for honest mistakes. If it was an honest mistake, temporarily losing a site or having content forcibly removed from one is a small price to pay. They will likely learn from it and move on.
Besides, there is little difference in this matter between playing nice and playing mean. If you have a Creative Commons License, the same terms apply to both.
In the end, one doesn’t have to be a plagiarist to understand the motivations behind it. By understanding the motivations, you’re better able to both prevent it from happening and stop it when it does.
Even if plagiarism is a very rare problem for you, it’s worth taking a moment to understand the reasons behind it and finding ways to apply that knowledge to cases when they come up.
It may not be a magic bullet, but it is another tool to have and to consider. Best of all, it’s a tool that, some day, could make a huge difference in a particular case.