The Psychology of Plagiarism

Note: This isn’t necessarily a return to a regular update schedule. As of this writing, I’m still within the city of New Orleans and without regular Internet access. Things are returning to normal rapidly here, but might take a while before this comes around.

Academic plagiarists steal for one singular purpose, to get a good grade on an assignment without having to do the work. This can be caused by any number of things including stress, high work load, poor time management skills, lack of confidence in their understanding of the material, pure laziness and even a belief that plagiarism is the best way to complete the assignment.

Still, no matter the reason, the purpose is singular, to get a good grade without doing the work.

Personal plagiarism is a bit more of a gray area. the purpose isn’t so clear and the reasons for it are even more vague. However, understanding why many people steal content can help us develop techniques for dealing with them and perhaps even prevent them.

That’s why, even though it’s nowhere near a science, it’s important that we all at least make an attempt to understand why people plagiarize, if nothing else than for the sake of our work and our effort.

The Business Plagiarist

Some people plagiarize purely for profit. These are the people who use automatic scraping software to loot sites of their content and repost them with their own ads. They do it simply because it’s easier and faster than creating their own content. If they took the time to create their own material, they might be able to run one or two Web sites. However, if they steal their content, they can run dozens effectively, multiplying their ability to make money.

While there’s no doubt that what they’re doing is copyright infringement, they approach it more from the mentality of a house burglar or petty thief. This is how they make their living, nothing more. They don’t spend much time debating the morality of it and probably have a list of reasons why they think their actions, though not legal, are morally just.

As such, repeating copyright law to this crowd probably will have little effect. They know the legal implications very well. They’ve also thrown morality to the wind and can’t be appealed to on that front. Instead, you have to hit them where it hurts, the pocketbooks.

Lace any cease and desist letter you send with a direct threat to sue and mention the penalties copyright law allows for in such cases. Also, attack their sources of revenue by reporting them to Google Adsense or whichever site runs their advertisements. Finally, DMCA notices are usually very effective for this kind of plagiarist as they usually host with well-known and well-respected free providers (once again, to save money).

However, bear in mind that these plagiarists are almost always the first to move on. Since they’ve largely automated the process of setting up a new site and probably have dozens of others waiting in the wings, simply shutting down their site isn’t likely to be much of a deterrent.

As I said before, attacking their revenue stream is a much more effective long-term solution. The wallet is every businessman’s weak point, regardless of whether he’s legitimate or not.

The Show Off

Some plagiarists have no business motive at all. They run personal Web sites chock-full of stolen material but without a revenue stream in sight. Laziness generally isn’t a solid motive as they often take a great deal of time customizing and tweaking their site to their liking and their taste. Though their sites are almost always amateurish and deeply flawed, it’s obvious that a great deal of effort went into them.

These plagiarists also don’t simply scrape content from one place and put it up on another. They search the Internet and find material that they like, picking and choosing from what they read, often hitting only a few pieces from each site. Some might even tinker with the work that they steal in an attempt to improve it.

Though they can hit almost any type of material that they enjoy, they more commonly steal poetry, artwork, photography, short stories and other types of creative work. The reason is that the goal of this kind of theft is to impress people. Be it friends, strangers or a potential love interest, plagiarists in this area are almost always working to impress someone else by stealing another’s work.

This type of theft usually stems from some kind of feeling of inadequacy. They usually feel that they, or at least their work and their skills, aren’t good enough. The most common plagiarist in this area is usually a teen to a young adult and are usually hanging on to misconceptions about copyright law. Even though they are aware of the moral implications of what they’re doing, they’re unclear on the legal ones and often feel that their emotional desperation justifies their actions.

One might think that they best way to handle these plagiarists is by exposing their actions and damaging their reputations, however, many of these plagiarists are drama queens (or kings) that thrive on any kind of attention, even negative. Also, many of these plagiarists are the first to spin around and challenge your ownership of your own work, creating a public controversy that damages your reputation. Unless you have such a clear case or such an overpowering reputation that you can withstand these petty battles, it’s wise to steer clear.

Instead, it’s better to attack them using fear. Most people who are unsure of themselves enough to steal someone else’s work are generally pretty easily spooked. If you catch them, inform them that copyright law forbids them from plagiarizing and let them know that they can be sued, they’ll usually back off.

If that fails, filing a DMCA notice or otherwise contacting the host is a very effective technique. Though the content is stolen, they still put in a great deal of time into it and, if it disappears suddenly, it’s a serious loss. They are less likely than most to plagiarize again, especially from you, and it would take them a great deal of effort to get set up again, even if they have the files backed up (which often times isn’t the case).

The Idiot

Finally some people steal because they are simply stupid. Though, these days, they are commonly bloggers making their first forays into personal publishing, a lot of more mainstream personal sites get caught up in it as well.

Many never intend to take work as their own but simply forget to attribute their sources. Others don’t realize that, if you put no attribution on a piece, people assume it was written by you. Still others are hanging on to misconceptions about copyright law and feel that this type of reuse is how the Internet, especially blogging, is supposed to work.

A lot of times, these plagiarists come from foreign countries where copyright laws aren’t strictly enforced. Others were simply never introduced to them at all. They can also be nearly any age, running any kind of site.

The trick, however, is in spotting them. Most copyright idiots appear to be one of the other kind of plagiarists. Most people who claim to simply be ignorant really are one of the other kinds. There’s simply no way to tell for certain, no litmus test to apply and no means of determining if the plagiarist you’re dealing with is malicious or just truly ignorant, especially when looking at the site.

As such, there’s no way to deal with these plagiarists. They have to be treated simply as if they were one of the other two kinds. It’s a sad fact, but a soft approach, which would undoubtedly be better for handling these cases, would create a great deal of trouble should the plagiarism turn out to be intentional.

Besides, people who are ignorant about copyright law and plagiarize, genuinely, because they don’t know what they’re doing have to learn and learn quick. Because, even though filing DMCA notices or cease and desist letters might seem to be harsh, those are technically warning shots a lot of people out there won’t even offer those.

So yes, it’s a hard way to learn the lesson, but it could be much worse. You’re doing both yourself and them a favor by driving the point home and treating it like any other case.

Otherwise, you could both wind up in a world of hurt.


In the end, determining why someone plagiarizes will help you design the best course of action for dealing with their infringement. Nonetheless, you shouldn’t spend too much time trying to determine their motives. You’re not the one responsible for explaining their actions.

Instead, you should focus on defending your work and finding the clearest, easiest path to resolving the situation. If someone’s feelings get hurt, that’s still a lot better than letting a crime go unresolved.

Besides, no one in their right mind is going to call you mean for protecting what is rightfully yours. As long as you don’t reach out beyond what the law allows, you’ll find that most people agree wholeheartedly with whatever steps you take.

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

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