Content Theft at TechCrunch.com

When Michael Arrington received a letter from a reader saying that some of his posts were on another site listed underneath a different name, he probably was expecting to find yet another splog scraping his content. A veteran blogger and the creator of both techcrunch.com and crunchnotes.com, he had grown used to seeing his work stolen for search engine gain.
What he found, however, was Josh Stomel, a California resident who copied and pasted large portions of two blog entries from techcrunch.com and posted them to his own.

However, what started out as just another plagiarism story quickly turned into a heated battle of words with two people telling very different versions of the same story.

Most importantly though, it’s a very intense plagiarism war that has valuable lessons for both copyright holders and copyright users can learn from.

While there’s little doubt that Stomel copied and pasted the posts from Arrington’s blog, both sides have agreed on that much at least, a great deal of controversy has come about regarding both Stomel’s intent and the events that followed the discovery of the misappropriated content.

Intentions

According to Stomel, he never intended to take credit for the posts in question. He simply copied and pasted them into his blog and saved them to format later. At work, according to him, he uses Firefox and the blogging site he uses, Blogsource, does not work well with the Firefox Web browser, and it is nearly impossible for him to add any formatting, including links, at work.

Having experimented with the Blogsource software, there definitely is a problem with it and Firefox. Neither my Linux nor my Windows machines, both of which use the browser, could get it to work.

However, Arrington points out that at least one of the posts involved did have formatting on it already and there was no reference to the source, text or HTML. A screenshot posted on his blog seems to support this, showing a hyperlink in the entry. In fact, Arrington says links that referred to other entries on his site were removed.

The issue is further complicated by the discovery of other entries, many of which are days old, that were taken directly from other sites. One example of this, an entry about DigitalUniverse.net, was posted on the nineteenth and taken directly from The Register.

Stomel, in a phone interview, said “I rarely remember what I post to the site” and went on to say that he gets things from many different sources and doesn’t have the time to attribute everything he finds. He also said that he would have used the “Draft” feature of the software to keep posts hidden until they were formatted but was worried about time stamping issues.

Regardless of intentions, however, the conflict that ensued was certainly one of the more memorable plagiarism struggles in recent history.

Reaction

While the controversy about the incident started when Arrington posted about the alleged plagiarism in his blog, much of it centered around what did or did not happen before that.

According to Arrington, he made multiple attempts to reach Stomel before posting the blog, “I emailed him, tried to contact him through Linkedin (he was two degrees away through three of my contacts), and called his company and left a vm for him and for the company’s VP of HR. No response at all. Then I posted.”

Stomel, on the other hand, says that he never heard from Arrington directly before the post and, instead, only knows of the voicemail left with the HR director. He went on to say that he had to get Arrington’s number off the voicemail in order to call him and try to straighten things out.

However, there is little doubt that the reaction against Stomel was very strong and immediate. He received several IMs, many of which he said were threatening, and comments were posted to his blog on the issue. He said that he didn’t understand why Arrington handled the matter the way he did and said that, all in all, it was handled “very poorly.”

Arrington, along with readers of his site, feel that the situation was handled the best way possible and that the public assault was the only option left them

In the end, Stomel did remove the works and, though he was initially hesitant to post a public apology on his blog, did so as well. That seemed to go a long way to quelling the issue. However, some felt the apology, which said in part “By no means was my intent to pass of his efforts as my own,” was a bit hollow in nature.

Despite that though, the open war seems to have cooled off as both sides have gone back to what they were doing before.

Lessons Learned

Stomel, who describes himself as an inexperienced blogger, said he learned a valuable lesson from this and will be much more careful in the future regarding issues of copyright. He plans on writing original posts as often as possible and immediately crediting those he does copy, even if it means not formatting it.

Arrington, for his part, seemed satisfied with how things ended but wished he could have gotten a more concrete apology from Stomel. He said that “It seemed like he wanted to talk about how much this whole situation sucked, how mad everyone was at him, how sad he was because his reputation was in the crapper, etc. Lots of remorse, but not for what he’d done.”

However, the entire situation highlights several elements that Plagiarism Today has been talking about since day one.

  1. Always Credit Your Sources – The Internet is an immediate environment and posting plagiarized work, even just for a few moments, is dangerous. If Stomel truly did intend to go back and add the links, it was still a mistake in judgment to post them without them, especially when pings update search engines immediately.
  2. Mob Justice Rarely Works Out Well – Though public humiliation and mob support can be effective, especially as a deterrent, it usually causes more drama than necessary and takes much longer to work. In the end, these types of incidents can hurt the reputation of both the victim and the plagiarist and, though it’s gratifying to destroy a thief in such a manner, it’s generally wiser to take more traditional routes.
  3. Plagiarism is a Reputation Killer – Plagiarism is, more than a theft, a lie to the world. Once you have lied on such a grand scale, it is almost impossible to piece together your reputation. Ask any of the journalists involved in plagiarism scandals about that. Stomel’s reputation has been delivered an almost fatal blow and, even if he writes original blogs for the rest of his life, he will likely have this cloud hanging over him. This is why it’s important to be “overly honest” when dealing with other people’s content.

Whether or not Stomel will carry out his promises of attribution, only time will tell. But you can rest assured that I and various “crunch” readers will be watching.

It seems unlikely that this issue is anywhere near over.

Update 01/11/06: John DeMayo, a blogger who deals with the subject of Internet advertising, discovered one of his posts on Stomel’s blog. Though the post itself was two months old, and well before the TechCrunch incident, DeMayo launched a campaign against Stomel, including buy adwords and rallying support. Stomel has responded by closing down his blog and making it private, effectively ending its run as a public blog. Perhaps now this incident can be laid to rest. It has caused far too many headaches already.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Law, Blogging[/tags]

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