Four years ago, when I first started defending my work against plagiarism, my stock cease and desist letter was my favorite tool. I used it in nearly every case of plagiarism and, in the end, resolved hundreds of incidents with it.
However, the Internet has changed a great deal since then. The personal home page, which was so popular back then, gave way to the social networking sites of today and email began to yield to private messages, comments and chat sessions.
While this has had many effects, most of them unanticipated, the one that I've noticed the most in my plagiarism-fighting has been that the cease and desist letter has become a dying art. Today, less than a quarter of all my plagiarism cases involve a cease and desist letter and, of those, only a handful are resolved through it.
The plagiarist has moved farther away from his victim and that means some sharp changes in the war against plagiarism online.
This is a Dial Tone…
Back when personal home pages were popular, most Webmasters posted their email address to let visitors get in touch with them. This provided a nearly ideal means of getting in touch with a potential plagiarist to send a cease and desist letter. With shift to social networking sites, email addresses became hidden and the only public means of contact became personal messaging services unique to the site they were running on.
While PMs certainly work like email addresses in many ways, they also come with several significant drawbacks:
- They are only available to subscribers of a specific site.
- They do not provide a paper trail that is saved on a computer you control.
- They often limit the length of outgoing messages.
- They generally lack advanced features such as attachments, bounced mail and return receipts.
- They are not universal, a PM from Myspace will not reach a Xanga user.
In short, if you wish to send a cease and desist letter to a plagiarist on a social networking site, you have to first register for the site, send the message using the limited PM function, check the site regularly for a reply and then hope it got through. In the time one would take in doing this, they could have easily contacted the host and had the work removed directly, without any problems.
Worse still, if a copyright holder deals with more than a few cases of plagiarism, he or she can find themselves saddled with dozens of accounts, including usernames and passwords, that they have no use for and the spam risk that comes with having them.
This places a very unfair burden on someone who is already a victim and pushes people away from the face to face approach for dealing with plagiarism.
Of course, social networking sites aren't the only reason for the decrease in cease and desist letter traffic, other factors have to considered as well.
First off, sploggers and scrapers, some of the most prolific plagiarists, rarely leave email addresses to contact them. Even those that do will most likely ignore any hostile communication that comes their way.
Second, fewer and fewer bloggers are including email addresses along with their works. The desire to blog anonymously, the fear of spam and other factors have motivated many bloggers, both plagiarist and legitimate, to rely heavily on other forms of contact such as comments and instant message.
Finally, more and more forums and community sites, including message boards, are being locked down to prevent spammers from abusing the system. This prevents anyone who isn't a member from doing anything other than reading the posts (and any ongoing plagiarism). This has the side effect of not only preventing a victim from contacting the plagiarist directly without an account, but also preventing him or her from contacting an administrator or moderator at the forum.
This can result in very ugly situations where one has to go "over the heads" of the people most directly able to help, just to avoid registering for yet another account.
The Need for a Plan
It becomes obvious, when looking at the changes in the Web over the last four years, that Webmasters need to develop a strategy for when there is no clear means of sending a cease and desist letter. Though I am a strong proponent of directly contacting plagiarists first, the question becomes how far should one go before moving on to the host or someone else who can help?
Personally, I rarely join a site solely for the purpose of reporting plagiarism. It does happen, but only on very rare occasions. Generally, if there is no means of contact without joining a site, I move on to the next level until I find one where there is. In a strange quirk of the DMCA, the higher up you go the more likely you are to find someone who is willing to help. Previously, before widespread DMCA enforcement, the opposite was true.
Also, I have completely stopped using the PM functions within many sites for sending cease and desist letters. I will sometimes use email forms, especially if they allow me to CC myself, but I do not use any internal messenger. I do not want the burden of logging back into the site at regular intervals to see if the plagiarist has written back.
All in all, it's very important, especially if you're handling a large volume of plagiarism cases, to not let a plagiarist or a Web site burden you unnecessarily. While contacting a plagiarist directly is always preferred, wasting time trying to find information that was not made public for a reason is a distraction that benefits no one.
In short, if the plagiarist doesn't provide a reliable means of contact for the public, one has to assume that they don't want to be contacted in such a way. With that in mind, it is best to heed those wishes, even if it means going over the heads on a plagiarism-related matters.
There is little doubt that the changes on the Web have pushed content creators away from cease and desist letters and more toward DMCA notices and forms of host contact. This is not entirely a negative thing as such notices are far more likely to succeed, but it is still very disconcerting to those who prefer to handle things face to face.
In the end, we all have to make a decision about how much effort we are willing to put forth to contact a plagiarist directly. While it is good ethics and good manners to do so when possible, there has to be a reasonable limit as to how much effort one should put forth when either the plagiarist or the site s/he is on doesn't want their contact information found.
That limit may very well be determined on an individual and even case-by-case basis, but it is something that every Webmaster who is interested in protecting their copyright needs to think about.[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, DMCA, Cease and Desist, Myspace, Xanga, Blogger[/tags]