Message Boards, Moderators and Admins

Even as blogging has moved to the forefront of the point and click Web, making them a staple crop for plagiarists as well as legitimate writers, message boards and forums have remained a common target for plagiarists. Their “one click” publishing capability and built-in community make them a popular destination for plagiarists who might be novices at the Web or perhaps too impatient create and build up a site of their own.

Thus, it’s important for copyright holders to consider message boards and the unique challenges they provide when it comes to dealing with plagiarism and protecting their copyright.

What is at Risk

Message board posts, like blogs, tend to be short and rapid fire. Thus, shorter works tend to be the most at risk. Second, since most message boards/forums are topical in nature, works on widely-discussed subjects and popular topics are also more at risk.

Thus, when dealing with the written word, poetry, short stories and hot topic essays are usually the most common things stolen. Rants and any other work under a page in length might be a target as well if they generate enough interest, especially if they appear to be an off the cuff expression or could be interpreted as such.

However, the most common form of plagiarism on message boards deals with images, specifically icons, avatars, signatures and other “personal” images. Since so few people have the needed skills to create professional-looking images for their forum posts, they simply lift them from other sources, often times without permission or attribution.

While some might wander if this is plagiarism or simply copyright infringement, due to the fact that very few people in a forum environment assume everyone created their own images, it’s still a cause for a concern. Furthermore, with so many sites dedicated specifically to creating and posting images for reuse on forums and blogs, there’s no reason for board members to steal copyrighted works or to break attribution rules.

Also, given the fact that many of these images are very personal in nature, having a great deal of significance and symbolism to their creators, their theft to represent someone else can be a very emotional blow. After all, it’s not just the theft of a work, but practically the theft of one’s identity online.

How to Discover It

Since message boards are indexed pretty well by Google and other search engines, there’s no need to deviate from the tips given in the “How to Find Plagiarism” section of the site.

However, as with blogs, the time it takes to search engines to index message boards could make their results less than relevant by the time you find them. The posts that contain the plagiarized works are often pushed way down to the bottom and, many times, the plagiarist has already left the forum for one reason or another.

But if the delay in indexing a message board is the greatest hindrance to stopping plagiarism, the community nature of such sites is the greatest asset. Since most forums are topical, there’s a good chance that, if there are enough people on the forum, someone who is reading the plagiarized post will remember the original and notify you or an official at the board. Out of all of the message board plagiarists I’ve dealt with, I’d say half have been the result of community involvement, a far higher percentage than I’ve seen anywhere else.

How to handle it

Message board plagiarism isn’t like dealing with other plagiarism online. Such sites are community-driven and, though possessing a formal hierarchy, aren’t bound by many of the same legal trappings as traditional hosts.

Thus, the best thing you can do is forget about DMCA notices and formal letters and get a very polite explanation of what’s going on to someone in charge. Most forums have a single administrator and larger group of moderators beneath him/her. The moderators, generally, have authority to delete/edit posts, follow up on complaints and forward serious matters to the administrator. Admins, in turn, have the power to ban users and take other disciplinary action on those that abuse the site.

Even though it might be tempting to go to the admin directly, it’s usually not wise. Moderators have a much better idea of what’s going on and they usually are assigned to specific areas of the board. In the end, you are much more likely to get a quick and swift reply from a moderator than an admin.

So, the best thing you can do, most of the time at least, is see if the board has a feature to let you know which moderators are online and then contact one of them using either email, if available, or through a private message feature. Either way, you might have to apply to become a member of the forum, a process that usually only takes a couple of seconds.

From there, keep in contact with the moderator and the administrator, if applicable, but let them handle it in accordance with their rules. As long as your works are removed or reposted in a way that suits your copyright policy, there’s no reason to be upset. Every forum has their own rules for such matters and demanding that someone be banned or receive some other kind of punishment is going to create unneeded ill will.

Instead, always be sure to thank those who helped you out, even if you don’t completely agree with their actions. You don’t want to be treated with hostility should you need to contact them again and you definitely don’t want to earn a reputation as someone who is uncooperative. It just makes future incidents of plagiarism that much harder to deal with.

The Other Side of the Coin

On the other side, moderators and admins need to take time to make sure that they have a copyright policy in place before something happens. This policy should make it clear that posting copyrighted works without permission is a violation of the rules and it should lay out punishments for what will happen. Even if the policy is never actually used, it’s mere presence will do a great deal to deter those that might try.

Second, make sure that there is a way for others to contact an official regarding a potential violation. Preferably, one should be able to do this without joining the site. A drop-box email that is checked by all of the moderators and admins is one solution; another is a public feature on each post to report it to a moderator. Most message board packages either have that option inherently or available as a plugin.

Finally, if possible, make the entire forum (save areas solely for admins and moderators) viewable to the public. Not only will this help search engines index your site and, most likely, attract new blood, but it makes it possible for copyright holders to track down plagiarists and stop them.

After all, no forum and no community are aided by the rehashing of content available elsewhere. Such sites are supposed to be about personal expression and developing a community. Plagiarism should not be tolerated, if for no other reason than the dishonesty to fellow members, the waste of resources and the damage it does to the community’s perception.

Conclusion

In the end, forums are either the easiest or the most difficult cases to handle depending on who you ask. No matter what though, handling these matters requires respect from both copyright holders and forum officials. If handled right, these things can be easy, even pleasant experiences that both resolve the issue and avoid creating an unneeded ruckus. On the other hand, if it’s approached from the wrong direction, it can produce a large volume of drama and ill will that no one needs.

The Internet is big enough for all of us, we just have to work together to make room.

[tags]Plagiairsm, Copyright Infringement, Message Boards, Forums, Copyright[/tags]

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