Punditry: Where is All the Plagiarism At?

When talking about battling plagiarism online, I’ve often referred to what I now call the “ladder problem”.

Before a copyright holder can be ready to protect their rights, they must first know that there is a problem, and then they must accept that the problem applies to them and that they themselves are victims. After all of that is done, they have to believe that they have the right to do something about it and then they have to believe that they can physically do something about it. Only then are they ready to learn the actual steps they can take.

So, when This Week in Tech (TWiT) covered Plagiarism Today, in relation to the ESBN article, it wasn’t a shock or even hurtful when Leo Leporte, a man I’ve long admired, called it a “funny blog” and David Prager asked aloud “Where is all of the plagiarism?” Instead, it was just a reminder of exactly how hard the battle really is.

However, for those who are reading this and wondering themselves about the seriousness of this issue and asking the same questions, I’m going to answer them once and for all. Because the evidence is clear, one just has to be willing to look for it.

An Example

Do a Google search for the following line; “Just let me surround myself with shadows”.

It’s a line from one of my poems called “In the Dark”. You will get approximately 100 results for it, however; only 2 are actually from my site. The others are from sites re-using the work, some legitimately and within the bounds of my Creative Commons License, but most either hacking off attribution or blatantly taking credit for it.

Now bear in mind that this is only one poem out of over 120 on my site and most generate similar results when searched for. When you search for my work, less than ten percent of all instances are original and less than 25 percent are legitimate at all. This is plagiarism, massive plagiarism, and its sin is compounded by the fact that this is a very personal poem written about a very difficult time in my life.

Whether you enjoy the poem or not is irrelevant. It is mine and it’s a deeply personal work that took courage to share.

All in all though, I’ve dealt with over 300 instance of plagiarism of my work, many of which involved dozens of pieces, some involving nearly a hundred. Poetry, rants, short stories, essays and even my copyright policy itself have been copied, reused without permission and reposted under other names.

As a writer who posts his works freely to the Web, with little hope for personal gain, this is sickening and frustrating. It goes completely against the intentions of the Internet and actually causes many good Webmasters to abandon their sites.

Of course, the problem of plagiarism on the Web is nothing new. It’s just that now, with the rise of blogging, the issue is finally getting some serious attention.

Pink Elephants

The idea of stealing another’s words is probably as old as the written language itself. Most likely, even the cavemen drawing on walls stole from one another just as readily as they came up with new ideas.

Of course, it was only the explosion of the Internet, which gave the power of the press to individuals as well as the media, that the problem plagiarism became more than a footnote on a college syllabus. As search engines made content king and every Tom, Dick and Jane was competing for both the public’s eye and the search engine’s ranking, the temptation to simply copy and paste grew too great for many.

Whether it was to impress their friends, fill out an empty site or just to look better to the world, many people began lifting text, images, audio and video and calling them their own. Now, some studies have hinted that as much as 25% of the Web is either plagiarized or otherwise illegally duplicated content.

To call that a conservative estimate would be an understatement and, with the explosion of splogging and other automated forms of content theft, the number is just going to rise.

Much like how the email system is now filled with junk mail, the Web is now becoming littered with plagiarized content. The only difference is that, unlike spam, most of the time the reader doesn’t know the content has been stolen. While junk mail is pretty obvious plagiarism is a crime that is rarely discovered by readers.

However, it’s that need for the crime to go undiscovered that has shielded the biggest names on the Web from much of its wrath.

Almost Immune

Though plagiarism in the blogging world is such a rampant issue that the term blogiarism has been given wings, many of bloggings biggest names have dodged the metaphorical bullet.

Since so few plagiarists have the courage to steal from well-known and likely-to-be-identified sources, the most popular blogs and bloggers see only a small fraction of the plagiarism. In general, it’s mid-range sites, those with decent traffic stats and dedicated followings but aren’t widely known, that are the most vulnerable.

Of course, this isn’t to say that big names are completely immune from the problem. Michael Arrington, of Techcrunch.com fame, recently had an ugly plagiarism episode that was covered here as did Om Malik and others.

To make matters worse, several large sites have even been implicated as perpetrators in plagiarism scandals including 1up.com and ebaumsworld.com.

Even Leo Leporte himself has had his work copied and reposted underneath other names on the Web. PC Help for Afghans has borrowed an article from Leo’s tips section. Sizeable chunks of his glossary have been lifted by various smaller technology sites including Searchwin2000.com and The Hindu Business Line.

Though we can’t call these sites plagiarists since we have no idea what kind of permission they were given or whether Leo holds the exclusive rights to his works, it is definitely a sign that even the most popular and well-known works get passed around the net liberally underneath a lot of different names.

Worst of all, it starts to make the 25% figure look more like the amount of original content, not the duplicated content.

Conclusions

In the end, the answer to the question “Where is all of the plagiarism?” is simply, everywhere.

The most sickening part of all is that the problem is getting a lot worse as splogging grows more popular, scraping and synonymzing software (including one package that shall remain nameless which offers tutorials on how to scrape, alter and repost an entire site’s content automatically) and more people turn to stealing content for the easy money it can provide.

It’s a serious issue that’s facing us today but, unlike the other issues on the Web, it’s one that most people don’t like to talk about it.

I’m not scared of it and I’m not going to be just another victim of it. We can face the facts now and put up a fight, or we can watch it eat the Internet and what we all thought it was suppose to be about alive. The choice is ours.

[tags]Plagirism, Content Theft, Copyright, Copyright Law, Blogiarism, Splogging, Splogs[/tags]

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