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Why the Cease and Desist Doesn’t Work

I’ve always felt that there is something to be said for solving a problem face to face. It seems, to me, that it is always best to resolve disagreements directly, when possible, and not involve outside parties.

The cease and desist letter is the obvious way to handle plagiarism and content theft matters face to face. However, in a recent article on the Blog Herald, I lamented the decreasing effectiveness of cease and desist letters. I’ve expressed similar concerns on this site and the trend only seems to be accelerating.

The reason for the near-death of the cease and desist, and along with it the face-to-face resolution for plagiarism matters, is not a simple one. Rather, the downfall has been brought on by a variety of circumstances that have combined to create a near perfect storm to push the cease and desist to the dusty corner of the Webmaster’s copyright toolbox.

Sadly, it appears that those forces are not prepared to abate any time soon and that, quite soon, the more personal methods of resolving copyright disputes could become a thing of the past.

The Changing Face of Plagiarism

In the early days of the Web, plagiarism was predominantly a personal matter. People stole content from others in order to impress their friends or improve their image online.

Though that problem is still ongoing, plagiarism has also become a business model. A small number of very prolific scrapers have seized upon copyright infringement not as a means of impressing their friends and neighbors, but as a way of making money.

The problem with this business model is that it requires a large quantity of material. That is only possible through automated means such as RSS scraping or content generation and it results in millions of junk pages, much of them filled with content from other sites.

In these situations, locating the plagiarist may be all but impossible and, even if he can be found, he is unlikely to be motivated to shut down just one of his thousands of sites simply because someone asked.

This business model makes it ineffective time-wise for a copyright holder to seek out the person behind the infringing sites to complain. They are much better off skipping straight to faster and more reliable methods of cessation.

Though it is sad and frustrating, a less civil form of plagiarism calls for a less civil method of dealing with it.

The Effect of the Walled Garden

As I pointed out in my original article on Plagiarism Today, even if the plagiarist is a human and not an automated bot, it may still be difficult to get in contact with them.

With the prevalence of social networking sites, which often hide email information in favor of internal messaging, there can be a great amount of difficulty in contacting the person reusing the work unless A) One is a member of the site and B) One is willing to send such an important letter via a means that does not have any verification.

Most people are not willing to register for a site simply to confront a plagiarist, especially considering that the plagiarist may not respond and that the method of contact is dubious at best. Filing a DMCA notice, on the other hand, requires no membership, can be done through email (on most sites) and is consistently effective.

Thus, it is a strange side effect of the “walled gardens” created by these social network sites that cause copyright holders to turn away from cease and desist letters. If one is outside the wall, it is much easier, and more effective, to reach the admins of the site and to enter the garden and try to handle things face to face.

In short, when you close the garden gate, you protect the plagiarist as well as the legitimate user.

How the RIAA is Destroying Copyright

Finally, though the average layperson understands very little about copyright law, as attested to by the amount of misinformation circulating the Web, copyright is more in the news than ever.

This is largely due to the efforts of the RIAA and the MPAA to stamp out file sharing. Those lawsuits, which have been roundly condemned and remain extremely unpopular, have turned many against copyright law itself. In the minds of some, copyright is nothing more than a tool used by large corporations to quash users.

Thus, any mention of copyright law or enforcing copyrights is likely to be met with hostility. No matter how in the wrong they are, a plagiarist might stand up and fight on principle, perhaps even turning a private disagreement into a very public drama.

This attitude has been bolstered by recent victories against the RIAA and a general understanding at the difficulties faced by small rightsholders if they look to sue a Webmaster that may be in another country.

Where once there was a certain amount of civility and honor in these matters, now even plagiarism is not as despicable, in some circles, as the word copyright. It is a disturbing trend, but not one that is likely to go away any time soon.

Conclusions

As both attitudes on the Web and the structure of the Web itself has changed, so has the means for handling plagiarism. Though we are better connected than ever to each other, those connections seem less and less personal.

It is almost as if that the Web has changed from a small town, with less law enforcement and more personal interaction, into a metropolis where the police play a larger role in law enforcement and we don’t know our known neighbors.

Sure, we have our social circles and our networking opportunities, but between the bots, walled gardens and hidden information, the idea of reaching out and contacting a complete stranger, much less resolving an issue with one, seems more foreign than it did just a few years ago.

The Web has changed, in some ways for the better, in some ways for the worse, and with those changed comes the death of the cease and desist letter. It is a minor change in the large scheme of things, that much is certain, but still one rightsholders and Webmasters need to note.

For it will have a drastic impact on how we handle plagiarism on into the future and it may very well change the nature of copyright for decades to come.

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