The war against plagiarism is a game of at and mouse. Plagiarism fighters constantly improve their techniques and lawmakers are working on (sloppily) updating the legal code while plagiarists are constantly developing new applications and techniques.
Sadly, the good guys are behind at the moment and, though plagiarism fighters have had some high-profile successes this year, they’re only falling farther behind. Technology, it seems, always favors the plagiarists as it’s easier to steal and then reclaim.
A perfect example of this conflict comes from the makers of Instant Article Ghostwriter. In their product, they’ve not only pushed the boundaries of what technology can do to plagiarize, but also the boundaries of the law itself.
What IAG Does
IAG, fundamentally, is a twist on the old content scrapers. However, rather than stealing all of the content from a single site, IAG scrapes a sentence or two from hundreds of sources and attempts to piece them back together in something resembling an article.
It’s the equivalent of a thief stealing one dollar from a thousand people rather than just taking a thousand dollars from a single person. From the perspective of the thief, this is a very smart thing to do. Stealing one dollar is far less of a crime than a thousand, it’s a lot less likely to be noticed and almost never is reported.
However, the time and energy it would take to physically steal a dollar makes it not worth even a petty thief’s time. On the other hand, with the automation provided by IAG, the process is effortless and is done without human intervention. Thus, one can theoretically reap the benefits of such a spread out theft without doing any of the actual legwork.
Though no one Webmaster is drastically affected under the system, this software’s announcement has sent shockwaves through copyright-minded Webmasters that have called it a variety of names, none of which have been pleasant.
However, these opinions might be moot as the software appears to be on very shaky ground legally.
Unlike ArticleBot and most other article-creation packages, IAG actually copies and pastes content from copyrighted sources. The software, by its very design, lifts and reposts copyrighted works online.
That’s an important distinction because other packages can claim to be tools and that it’s up to the user to decide how to use it. After all, AB and packages like it can simply be used to respin one’s own material. IAG only works by copying from others.
However, users and creators of IAG claim that their copying is legal, falling under the fair use doctrine. While certainly elements of their use do favor that notion, especially the amount of the work taken and the potential damage to the copyright holder, other elements do not, including the commercial nature of the use, absence of public good and the lack of attribution.
The fair use argument is also hindered by the observation of at least one blogger who discovered that, on some searches, IAG will take several lines, often over half of its content, from a single source.
To make matters more complicated, as discussed previously here, fair use is not a hard and fast set of rules, but rather, a framework. Thus, much of the discretion in resolving fair use cases is left up to the judges, which can often vary wildly in opinions on the subject.
For their part, the makers of IAG posted a brief letter from their lawyer, Albert McCraig Jr., on the subject of IAG and plagiarism. At the end of the letter McCraig stated that he found “Nothing about Instant Article Ghost Writer, if used according to the instructions, that constitutes plagiarism.”
The letter, however, falls short of offering serious reassurance. First and foremost, McCraig is not an intellectual property attorney, but rather a corporate attorney that specializes in commercial transactions, real estate, estate planning and business management. Though he handles intellectual property cases, he is not a specialist on IP law.
But most intriguing is the complete lack of mention of copyright infringement, fair use or any of the other legal areas involved in use of this product. While McCraig offers a great deal of assurance that using IAG isn’t plagiarism, which is considered an ethical offense, he neglects to say whether or not it’s copyright infringement, which is what one would be sued for.
In the end, it appears that IAG is in a very uncertain gray area, one that could be very perilous to an less than careful author. Much of the legal theory behind IAG is untested and one has to wonder, with so much at stake, why one would risk it.
Of course, even if the legal element of IAG is up in the air, the ethical element seems to have already been tried in the court of public opinion, with very unfavorable results.
Bloggers Cry Out
Bloggers, on the other hand, have been far from quiet about this application. Uneasy with the idea of competing with automatically generated articles using at least some of their content, bloggers have, by in large, decried IAG as just another form of plagiarism.
Especially stinging have been comments on Joel Comm’s article on IAG, including two from Darren of Problogger. Bloggers have expressed both near universal unease about the product and uncertainty about its legal standing (Note: This link stems in part from a conversation between myself and the author of the blog in question).
However, the greatest complaints most bloggers have had about the product have had little to do with ethical or legal issues, but rather, quality ones. The general consensus seems to be that the legal and ethical issues don’t matter, the service itself is just terrible.
So bad is the problem that Alice Hill from Real Tech News proclaimed that “Good writers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”
IAG’s name is, fundamentally, misleading. There is nothing instant about the process and it doesn’t write anything, much less an article. Instead, all it does is copy and paste sentences from various sources on the Web and attempt to organize them into a semi-intelligent format.
The problem is that, since the sentences themselves are pulled from so many different sources, they are disjunctive and rarely go together. It’s up to the user to first remove sentences which don’t belong and then craft the sentences left into something resembling an article.
By the time one is done with all of this work, they could have easily researched the article using handful or reputable sources, rather than a slew of random sites, and cited their sources properly. This would have avoided both the expense of using the service, which starts at $37 a month, and the potential copyright issues that come with it.
In the end, the only people that are likely to find any use for IAG are sploggers looking to generate copy to fool search engines, not be read by human users. They will happily post the nonsense that IAG spits, without any editing, in order to quickly obtain content for the search engines.
Of course, those users will more likely find use in other applications better targeted at their needs including article generators that don’t need to do any scraping and can post directly to a blog. These programs are, generally, faster, cheaper and better for those that want to go completely black hat.
This leaves the obvious question: Who would want to use or benefit from this product? That’s a hard question that no one seems to have the answer for.
In the end, users of IAG are likely to be shielded from copyright suits not by the law itself, but by the nature of the product. With so few plagiarism incidents being caught and dealt with, it’s unlikely someone stealing a single sentence will ever hear anything about it.
Still, there’s no reason to take the risk, especially with a product that requires so much human intervention. There’s just no reason to use an expensive service with dubious ethical and legal implications when so many alternatives are available.
Nonetheless, it’s important that those of us defending against plagiarism make note of IAG for it is the first volley in a brand new war against content theft. Though this shot missed its mark, others will follow and we must be ready.
It’s not enough to let IAG slip into the sunset as a bad product, we must be ready to challenge it as a bad idea as well.
I am glad to see that the blogging community has done just that and I hope that the trend continues.