Punditry: Letting the Plagiarists Win

As part of working on this site, I read a lot of blogs. Doing so gives me new perspectives, fresh ideas, interesting stories and, from time to time, the chance to help someone in need. 

However, lately I’ve been noticing a trend, bloggers that are clearly frustrated by the issue of content theft that are simply giving up. Some have even written that the situation is so hopeless that the best we can do is try to make it work for us by providing links to improve search engine rankings.

While I can understand being overwhelmed by the size of the challenge, letting the plagiarists win and giving in to content thieves is not the answer. Plagiarists rely upon the knowledge that most people will do nothing in order to carry out their thefts and the more people who surrender, the more plagiarists we’ll have and the more theft will take place.

If we are to keep the Web safe for both content creators and readers, we have to take both action and responsibility. We have to protect ourselves as well as your neighbors and the cost of doing so is far less than the cost of standing down.

The Case Against Walking Away

In most countries, the idea of ownership of a created work is a fundamental right. Only in socialist and former socialist nations, where all property is community owned, is the notion even remotely debated.

The ability to say "I created this, therefore, this is mine," is a necessary right enjoyed by artists. Even countries with relaxed copyright laws have an understanding of "moral rights" that prevent others from simply tacking their name to your hard work.

While it’s untrue in these modern days that you can lose copyright protection of a work if you fail to protect it, you can lose all practical control of a work. Like a balloon released to the wind, it may be yours, but exercising that right is nearly impossible. This means that you reach a point where, though you have ownership of a work on paper, you lose all control in the practical sense and can no longer reap all of the rewards of your work, be they personal, financial or something in between.

To some people, that’s acceptable. They don’t mind knowing that, when the post a work to the Web, they’re immediately going to lose all control over it. That’s their right. Others, however, want to share their work online, taking part in the personal publishing revolution, but still retain at least some ownership of their creations. They don’t see posting a work on the web as the equivalent of releasing a balloon. Even if they allow or encourage sharing of a work, they want their name to travel with it, sending other who are interested in the work back to the artist, possibly so they can read more work.

However, those that wish to roll over to plagiarists are essentially telling artists they have two choices. First, don’t share your work on the Web and pass over the greatest communications revolution since the printing press or, second, surrender all rights to a work whenever you post it up, making the Web a de facto public domain.

Neither choice is acceptable for they are both lethal to the artist.

The only option that remains is to find a middle ground. To understand that, while some theft is inevitable, that it is possible to retain control over your work, even on the Web. All that it takes is the time to learn one’s rights and understand how to flex them.

Naysayers, say that this is impractical or even impossible. However, my own experience proves otherwise. From what I’ve seen, the people raising the white flag have either invested in the wrong techniques or simply had no idea where to begin and grew both lost and frustrated when they tried to protect themselves. 

But the fact that one person, or even a handful, grew tired of the fight and quit should not discourage the rest of us. Plagiarists count on the fact that most people will do nothing to protect their works and, even if only a few of us are truly vigilant, it can be a major deterrent in preventing future plagiarism, thus protecting not only our own works, but those of people we’ve never met.

But that doesn’t mean the quitters won’t tell you otherwise. Under the guise of being realists, these frustrated souls will make many different arguments to encourage you to divert your energy elsewhere. Here’s why you shouldn’t listen to them.

Countering the Defeatist Mentality 

There’s no way to win the war on plagiarism.

We fight a lot of wars we can’t win. I’m certain that we’ll never "win" the war on crime. Yet, despite that, thousands of men and women put on blue uniforms every day to fight that war. We’ll also probably never "win" the wars on drunk driving, teen pregnancy, addiction and a thousand other social ills that, every day, people dedicate their lives to tackling. No one accuses these people of wasting their time and no one should accuse you of wasting yours just because you work to stop plagiarism of your creations.

Time spent fighting plagiarism takes away from creating new material.

Much of that mentality stems from a lack of understanding about how to protect one’s works in an efficient manner. Personally, I very rarely spend more than fifteen minutes on a single case of plagiarism. Of all the things that have prevented me from writng new material, battling plagiarism has been very low on the list. I’ve probably lost more new work to computer malfunctions than to time spent fighting plagiarists.

However, even if your free time is so valuable that stopping plagiarists would hinder creating some new material, ask yourself a tough question. How much material can you create in fifteen minutes? Is creating that small amount of new material, however much it is, worth losing control over the ones you’ve already created? We do so many things for the works we’ve completed, including archiving, editing and promotion, doesn’t it make sense to also protect it against thieves?

There’s nothing you can do about it anyway.

This is utter malarkey. Just because someone doesn’t know what they can do doesn’t mean that there are no options available. This site is a testament to that. Anyone who is familiar with copyright law will tell you that there are plenty of things that you can do. You don’t need a lawyer or to even have one to do a good job protecting your works. All it takes a little research and patience to understand your rights and how to exercise them.

Plagiarism can help you in the long run.

This is usually from someone that specializes in search engine optimization (SEO) and feel that, by including links to your own site in your work and then letting others steal it, you can improve your pagerank and raise your site’s ranking in the search engines. While this may be true on paper, most plagiarists don’t copy links, just text and images. Even those that do though aren’t likely to help significantly, certainly not as much as the damage they’ll do by forcing you to compete against copies of your own work for search terms that should be unique to your writing.

Ponder this for a moment. When I search for my own poems, in some cases, a plagiarist is actually higher in the search rankings than I am. If the use were credited with a link back, I might consider it helpful to my site as a whole, however, as it is, it just looks as if the plagiarist is the original author and, worse still, becomes the one getting most of the traffic for my work. How does this benefit me?

It’s just the way information is changing.

While it’s true that many elements of how we look at copyright are changing, attribution and credit are still fundamental values. The recent flurry of plagiarism scandals only prove that, despite the rising popularity of remixing and syndication, that proper credit and honesty in sources are valued traits. 

In truth, most of the ways that  our concept of information and copyright is changing regards the reproduction of material. Creative Commons Licenses, RSS feeds and blogs in general have drastically changed how we look at copying a work. However, there is no CC license that doesn’t require attribution and RSS feeds always carry links back to the original articles.

Duplicating content with permission and taking credit for work that is not your own are light years apart in terms of morality and the impact it has on the content’s creator.

Furthermore, most artists want their work to be seen by as many people as possible and will encourage some level of duplication to make that happen. However, very few are going to agree to it if it means that they lose all control over their work and that they, once their work has been released on the Web, will never be able to reap any rewards from it.

Artists will always create, but culture requires them to share their work with others. What motivation do they have to share if the act of doing so just destroys what they create? 


In the end, most of the arguments in favor of letting plagiarists win are either from people that don’t understand how to efficiently and effectively go after those that steal their content and from people who don’t fully appreciate the potential consequences of letting their works being stolen at will.

Nonetheless, those of us who do protect our work from plagiarism, even if we allow attributed reuse of our work, will be helping to discourage thieves and make the Internet a better place for all artists, including those who don’t know of the problem or don’t do anything to stop it.

It’s not a duty or an honor, but something that just has to be done.

[tags]Plagiarism, content theft, copyright infringement, punditry, copyright[/tags]

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