Ethical Plagiarism Fighting

The actions of copyright holders are under more scrutiny than ever.

News coverage regarding large copyright clearinghouses, namely the RIAA and the MPAA, have put the steps we, as small artists, take to protect our copyright in the public light and in a very hostile way. Worse still, the problem has been compounded by unpopular laws, including the DMCA, which have been used by some to silence critics and stifle legitimate speech.

Underneath all of this, there has been a tremendous undercurrent of small artists having their work plagiarized and genuinely ripped off. For every million-selling recording artist that’s losing record sales to file sharing network (a notion that is up for debate), there are thousands of writers, artists and musicians that are having their content plagiarized that have no or limited access to attorneys and relief in the court system.

Despite this, in many circles, public opinion is decidedly against copyright holders, even small ones with very legitimate concerns. To some people, protecting your copyright, even from plagiarists, is viewed as a negative thing.

Thus, it is no longer adequate to simply be “in the right”. We have to make sure that the actions we take are not just legal, but also ethical in nature. Thus, I am proposing a set of loose standards for ethical plagiarism fighting. Please note that these articles are currently in draft status and will be updated, perhaps as a separate page, as feedback comes in.

1. Copyright holders should not, under any circumstance, use existing copyright laws to impede fair use rights, silence critics, or resolve unrelated legal matters (IE: Trademark, libel, etc.).

While many times critics as well as individuals infringing on other personal/business rights, do cross lines and infringe on copyright as well, many times copyright laws are used to bring quick ends to these matters because they are easy and inexpensive to apply.

This only cheapens the rights of content creators everywhere and fosters a hostile attitude toward those wanting to legitimately protect their copyright. While copyright infringement, especially plagiarism, is serious and should be dealt with, using copyright laws simply as leverage to silence unwanted criticism or resolve other disputes, even when it is within the letter of the law, but not the spirit, should not be tolerated.

2. Copyright holders should carry themselves in a professional and courteous manner at all times.

Though plagiarism often involves heated emotions, especially when personal works are taken, it’s important to maintain yourself in a polite, courteous, but stern manner at all times. Name-calling, personal attacks and threats have no place in this fight.

3. Copyright holders should first try to resolve matters in private whenever possible.

Though many people, when they discover plagiarism, first attempt to try the case in the court of public opinion, such moves are dangerous and often do more to harm the reputation of copyright holders than plagiarists.

Copyright holders, whenever possible, should try to resolve such matters with the plagiarists themselves, whether through C&D letters or other forms of personal communication. DMCA notices and other techniques should be reserved for occasions when the plagiarists is unresponsive or can not be contacted directly.

Handling matters this way allows plagiarists to comply in a way that will not necessarily destroy their own work, can prevent people who made an innocent mistake from suffering unneeded consequences and can help educate plagiarists about copyright law.

4. Copyright holders should offer a clear and concise copyright policy on their site. Either through a Creative Commons License or a policy that they write themselves.

It’s important that those seeking to protect their copyrights do everything in their power to prevent theft before it happens, including having a clearly-written copyright policy. Such a policy would provide a clear message about what is and is not acceptable use of the work and offer a stern warning for those who seek to infringe.

This “fair warning” not only reduces plagiarism by a sizable percent and produces a more favorable legal climate, but also prevents confusion among potential plagiarists about their rights. No one who oversteps those rights can say that they weren’t warned or that they didn’t know that what they were doing was wrong.

This is a simple step that not only makes good policy, but good ethical sense. Copyright trolls and others who don’t think about copyright until it’s time to ambush plagiarists greatly hinder others attempts to stop serious acts of infringement.

5. Copyright Infringement should be dealt with as expeditiously as possible.

Matters of plagiarism and copyright infringement should be dealt with as quickly as possible, Intentionally sitting on a case of plagiarism might not only jeopardize one’s legal options, but also one’s ethical standing.

6. Copyright holders should try to build good relationships with hosts, administrators and other “gatekeepers”.

In order to effectively combat plagiarism, copyright holders should attempt to forge positive and constructive relationships with administrators whenever possible. An atmosphere of cooperation greatly aids artists in getting infringing works removed, shields hosts against potential legal action and prevents plagiarism from putting down roots at any one place.

7. Copyright holders should have a fundamental understanding of copyright law and both the rights of the creator of the work and the public.

Though no one reasonably expects your average writer/artist/musician to be a bona fide legal expert on copyright, especially regarding intricate areas such as fair use, having a fundamental knowledge of copyright law helps a copyright holder not only protect their works, but prevent them from trampling on the rights of others.

Also, Webmasters and other content creators should take the time to understand laws that affect their anti-plagiarism activities, such as the DMCA, and strive to apply those laws both correctly and fairly.

8. Finally, copyright holders online should operate with the understanding that reasonable sharing is a value that rests at the foundation of the Web.

There are many times in which the reuse of an item might technically be a violation of one’s copyright but is well within the spirit of the Web. Those who hold a strict interpretation of copyright law and want to protect all of their rights to the letter of the law need to accept that, while plagiarism and content theft are definite sins on the Web, reasonable sharing is both commonplace and expected.

Clamping down on socially accepted reuse not only aids those rallying to whittle away the rights of content creators, but also makes it more difficult to protect works from misuses that are outside both social and legal norms.


In the end, this piece is not intended to be a final work, but rather, something to get the conversation started. As feedback comes in on this piece, both via email and as comments, I’ll modify it and, hopefully, codify it into a final work sometime soon.

I look forward to hearing what you have to say in regards to it.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, Copyright Law, Ethics, DMCA, RIAA, MPAA[/tags]

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