I’ve handled approximately 300 cases of plagiarism of my own material and, in that time, I’ve heard a lot of excuses. It’s reached the point now where I can almost predict the excuse even before I send off the letter.

Though I rarely, if ever, argue with a plagiarist so long as they remove my work (the adage about arguing with an idiot comes to mind), I don’t believe the excuses either. I can’t think of a single plagiarist that has had what I would definitely say is a legitimate reason for lifting my work and only a few have even made me think twice.

If you have any doubts though, here’s the list of most common excuses I’ve encountered and why I don’t believe them. If you are actively stopping plagiarists now, you’ll likely find that my experiences mirror your own.

“I didn’t say it was mine…”

This is the classic fallback for anyone who conviniently omits any kind of attribution on a stolen work. I say conviniently because anyone who has completed a high school research paper knows that you’re supposed to attribute sources. Worse still, even a young child can understand that, if you post something to your site or your profile, that others will assume you created it unless you state otherwise.

Just because someone wasn’t parading around saying that a work is theirs doesn’t mean that they aren’t a plagiarist, especially if the mistake was repeated. After all, most people who want to reuse a work do attribute it and, while mistakes happen, it’s one that’s rarely recurring.

“[Name of 3rd party] gave me the work…”

I have to wonder about the naivete of someone who would actually believe another human being would simply give away all rights to something that they created to be reposted under another name, especially a poem, painting or other deeply personal work.

The truth is that these friends, siblings or acquaintances are usually just as imaginary as their ownership of the work. If you need proof of this, ask to speak with the person in question you’ll find quickly that they either can’t get a hold of them, that they’re too young to offer up or that they can’t stand to betray their friend (even though this “friend” just lied to them and wound them up in legal trouble).

In all of the cases I’ve handled where this excuse has come out, not once have I gotten valid contact info for the other person involved. Just proof that it’s just another string in the plagiarism web of lies.

“I didn’t charge for it, therefore, I didn’t do anything wrong…”

This actually stems more from a misunderstanding about copyright law than actually being an excuse. Some people, for whatever reason, have the notion that if they don’t charge for a copy of a work, that it’s not infringement.

It’s easily enough disproven though, after all, the record industry has had a field day suing file sharers, none of which made a penny of distributing copies of files. Furthermore, the term copyright literally means the right to copy, and makes no distinction on what, if anything, was gained from the copying.

But even if there is genuine confusion as to the nature of copyright, pretty much anyone knows that it is immoral to steal another’s work and claim it as their own. Just because they think they’re within the bounds of their misguided notion of law, they aren’t within any reasonable person’s moral boundaries.

“I thought everything on the Web was public domain.”

Once again, this is a misunderstanding about copyright law and a case where someone forgoes decency to push the boundaries of what they believe the law says. The problem is the same though, even if there is genuine confusion, one has to realize that lying to the world is wrong. Any excuse along these lines should be corrected and then discarded.

On that note though, an ounce of prevention in the form of good copyright notices and warnings can go a long way.

“I thought you wanted it the world to see your work.”

It’s amazing how concerned people are about your wishes until you request attribution. Where a two-word byline with a link could fix everything, they just either leave it off or directly take credit for it.

While it’s true that every author wants their work to be read, that want to be able to reap benefit from that, even if it’s just engaging their readers in dialog and getting feedback from them. Plagiarism short circuits any benefit that could ever be received and that’s a pretty well understood fact.

In the end, it is so trivial to offer attribution to a piece that any one with the author’s best interest in mind would do so without a second thought. This is a clear cut case of someone trying to unburden their conscious by making themselves out to be altruistic, even when their actions were anything but.

“I’m just such a big fan of your work…”

The suck-up approach. Many plagiarists, when caught, try to pump up the copyright holder’s ego in hopes of getting off easier. However, while I have no doubt that they enjoyed the work, most plagiarists won’t steal work that they don’t like, they’re hardly fans. Fans are people who work actively to support your creative endeavors, not disrupt them.

I’ve never, in my life, had a fan steal my work. I’ve had several fans help me stop plagiarists, but none engage in the act. No matter how much a plagiarist enjoys my work or plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, plagiarists are actively working against the person that created the work by trying to steal from them.

They clearly don’t love the work enough to help encourage the creator to make more like it or are, at least, so blinded by their own ambitions that they don’t care about it. That means that any flattery from them is but empty praise said in a moment where they are trying to stave off trouble.

“I’m sorry…”

A sizeable percentage of plagiarists, I’d say around half, do apologize and accept responsibility when they get caught, that is, at least in words. They offer no excuses, apologize multiple times and swear up and down that it’s a mistake that they will never repeat. They also offer no resistance to any request you make of them and bend over backwards to appease you.

As much as I appreciate these acts of repentance and want to believe the sincerity of their words, I’ve had several plagiarists apologize and appear to beg off only to spring up again later, on another site. Either these apologies are just another form of insincere blame-dodging or these people are truly bound by a strange compulsion and need to seek help.

Furthermore, I find it worrisome that these people are “sorry” that they did something once they were caught, but didn’t feel badly enough about it to avoid doing it in the first place. It’s the same kind of strange logic that grips young children when they’re caught doing something they weren’t supposed to be doing.

In the End

When it comes right down to it, plagiarists will either apologize or beg off, make excuses or simply disappear. In my experience, each outcome is about equally likely.

But, no matter what, chasing down and cornering a plagiarist is never a satisfactory experience. Excuses and empty apologies are all that you could ever reasonably hope for. I’ve tried many times to speak with my plagiarists and get a greater understanding of why they do what they do, each time I’ve been met with either silence or static.

Maybe some day I’ll be able to break through that. But in the meantime though, I certainly don’t recommend anyone trying it.

Wading through bull plop should be reserved for those with rubber boots and shovels. Not Webmasters trying to protect their content.

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

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