Protecting Your Friends and Neighbors

It doesn’t matter if you are actively searching the web for plagiarists or if you are just an avid reader of articles on a particular subject, it’s almost certainly going to happen. You’re going to be smacked with a strange feeling of deja vu, the feeling that you’ve seen that article/image/work before.

You do a quick search or rummage through your history and quickly find the second link. Suddenly, you have two copies of a work on your hands and logic dictates that one is plagiarized.

The comes the tough part, figuring out what, if anything, to do about it. Sadly, there are no easy answers but there are things that you can do to make your decision a little bit easier.

Forensic Investigation

Many times, when you stumble across a case of plagiarism, you won’t know anything about it beyond the fact that plagiarism has taken place. Since timestamps can be changed, big sites often lift from smaller ones and most copyright information can be faked, telling the original from the copy can be a true headache.

Other times, the culprit is clear. Being on the site of a known plagiarist or discovering hidden meta data that points the other way is certainly a clear sign of guilt. Even then though, what to do is unclear. Hosts are, generally, uncooperative with copyright complaints from third parties (for obvious legal reasons) and most victims don’t know what to do if they want to do anything at all.

This has caused many in this position to simply look the other way. The hassle and annoyance of doing something becomes too much to justify.

While it’s an understandable reaction, it’s one that’s frustrating for copyright holders that often depend on the eyes and ears of strangers to help them protect their work.

So What To Do?

If you find yourself in the position of witnessing an act plagiarism, your options are limited, but far from hopeless.

The first and easiest way is to simply report the potential infringement at a third party site that specializes in handling these matters. One such site, the No Youinking! section at AlexSuze.com (Note: No adult content at link but domain does contain explicit material), only requires that you copy and paste the two involved links, you need not give your email address or any other information if you don’t want.

These services are ideal in many ways because they make it easy to report plagiarism and turn it over to volunteers that have a set policy in place on how to handle these matters. It also shields you from any hostile reaction that the incident might draw.

However, if you would prefer to handle the case personally, it’s important to do so without lobbing accusations. If you don’t know who the plagiarist is for certain, write both parties a polite letter letting them know that you’ve seen a duplicate version of the content underneath another name and provide a link to it. If you use such a letter, it’s important to mention in both of them that you send a similar note to the other party involved. In short, be honest and transparent without taking sides.

If you do know who the plagiarist is, send the victim a polite letter letting them know what is going on. Once again, don’t take sides or outright accuse, but if you can prove who the plagiarist is, don’t waste your time with a second letter as it might tip off the plagiarist before the victim can take any action.

It’s important to note that a letter could be an email, an IM or any other means of private contact available. If such contact information isn’t available, leaving a comment to the lifted work might be appropriate and, if that isn’t available, having an administrator at the site they  post contact the person is an option as well.

No matter what though, you should resist the urge to get involved more than needed. You can’t claim copyright infringement on the behalf of someone else and trying to shame a plagiarist for someone else is dangerous as the plagiarist can launch a counter attack when the victim isn’t there to defend themselves.

The only thing one might be able to do with impunity is report a plagiarist to their advertisers and hope that they take action. However, the decision is still up to the advertiser and, generally, they’re hesitant to act without an actual copyright infringement claim. This includes Google Adsense.

How Can Webmasters Help?

Previously, I wrote about tapping your readers and getting their help in the plagiarism fight. While all of the advice in there is useful, the take away elements should be to both make your readers aware of the problem and offer a means of contact. Even the best of the good Samaritans can be thwarted by a lack of contact information.

Taking the time to create a form which allows users to contact you, preferably anonymously, regarding copyright infringement is a tremendous step. The easier and safer you make it for visitors to contact you regarding these matters, the more likely they are to do so.

Because,  while the tools we have for finding plagiarism are impressive, they can’t replace thousands of eyes reading content in the same field. Humans will always be able to see things search engines can’t and will have access to data that automated techniques can’t reach. That’s what makes the support of your readership so important.

Whether they’re a few dozen or a few million, they can still be the best allies you ever had.

Hat Tip: Special thanks goes to Kirk of Maxpower.ca for the idea of this article. He noticed the obvious omission and sent me the idea. On that note, if you have an idea for a PlagiarismToday article, feel free to contact me.

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