How to Stop Tinkering Thieves

Most plagiarism is the simple copy and paste variety. Someone sees something they like and, with a few keyboard shortcuts or mouse clicks, take it as their own. No effort is required and the benefit is instantaneous.

Many, however, simply aren’t content stealing verbatim. They take the time to play with what they picked up, manipulating images, editing text and remixing music. It’s a longer, more involved, process that winds up changing nothing in the big picture of plagiarism.

Take, for example, what happened to The Malcontent. He had one of his blog entries stolen, modified slightly and reposted under another name. When you look at the entries side-by-side, there’s no denying the similarities. But even then, the changes, no matter how minor, are equally obvious and they show an attempt to either improve the piece or hide its origins.

However, such changes rarely achieve either goal. No matter how much tinkering is done, the plagiarist can almost never improve upon the original author’s original vision and can never fully mask the origins of the piece, not without putting in more effort than simply creating something from scratch. Still, this manipulation gives the thieves a great sense of security and, perhaps, a shred of self-respect. After all, they did play some role in the creation of the new work.

But despite what the tinkerer’s might say or feel, it’s still theft and these plagiarists almost always have their bubble burst as the grim reality the situation begins to sink in…

Many plagiarists, completely unfamiliar with copyright law, feel that their behavior is protected and that their tinkering, no matter how insignificant, warrants the birth of a whole new piece that they own the rights to. However, nothing could be farther from the truth.

The U.S. Copyright act of 1976 states that the copyright holder has the sole right to, among other things, “Prepare derivative works based upon the copyrighted work.” This is why fan fiction is usually considered to be the property of the original creators and why such manipulated plagiarism is illegal.

This is protection against thieves who retitle a poem or recrop a photograph and call it an entirely new work that they own. It also gives you the exact same rights and avenues to stop “tinkered” plagiarism that you have to stop “copy and paste” variety.

So, with that in mind, if you find a plagiarist who edited your work before repasting it, you should follow the exact same steps you would if it were any other case. You own that work as much as you do the original and your rights have not changed.

Even though many plagiarists will fire back with insults, wondering how you can demand the removal of “their” work, hosts and the DMCA make no such distinctions. Rather than arguing copyright laws with unrepentant thieves, you should go to the people who can help you solve the problem. Odds are, you’ll find them very willing to help and the experience might prove educational to those who steal without remorse.

Of course, like most plagiarists, tinkerers know on some level that what they’re doing is wrong, even if they don’t understand the legal issues around it. It’s dishonest to place a few stones and call the mountain yours, almost anyone can see that.

In fact, in many regards, tinkerers are more sinister than their copy and paste counterparts. Unlike general plagiarists who might simply “forget” attribution, tinkerers are working to actually steal the work, hide the theft and make it their own. It’s a much more deliberate and calculated act.

But, as I said, the good news is that the same laws that protect you from vanilla plagiarists protect you from this variety. There’s no need to change your strategy. So long as the theft is obvious to the average reader, your rights are very well protected.

However, it’s still your responsibility to defend them.

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

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