Capturing Plagiarism

Cases of copyright infringement, and thus plagiarism, rarely make it to trial. Such matters are cost prohibitive to sue over and other avenues of resolution, most of which are both quick and free, are readily available. 

Despite that, when dealing with matters of plagiarism, it's always a good idea to treat the case as if it were likely to be heard by a jury. This means maintaining a professional attitude, following the letter of the law and gathering evidence of the infringement.

However, gathering evidence is a very difficult matter when dealing with plagiarism online. Without physical copies of a plagiarized work, proving the time, place and nature of its existence is a very tricky matter. On the Web, text, images, audio and video can be changed in a flash and nothing is necessarily what it seems.

So how does one prove that plagiarism existed and that it actually is plagiarism? The answer is not as easy as one would hope.

Hit Me With a Screenshot

The easiest and most popular way to archive and prove the existence of plagiarism is to simply take a screenshot of the infirnging page. The process is simple, in Windows you open up the page in question, press the "Print Screen" key and then paste the resulting image into your favorite image editor or wordprocessor. The whole process takes only a few seconds and requires no special software.

However, there are several problems with screenshots.

First, they provide no means of verifying time and date. Though the file itself carries a date stamp and the clock in the corner can provide some measure of the time the picture was taken, both are dependant on the system's internal lock, which can be set by the user. Since the entire process takes place on your own machine, which you control, there is little way to prove that the date and time haven't been messed with.

Second, screenshots can be easily manipulated. Simple photo-editing software and rudimentary skills are all that's required to make a screenshot into something else. Though experts in the field have ways of detecting image manipulation, such expert testimony would only likely be of use in major court cases where the money involved warranted bringing such arms to bear.

In the end, the only way to protect a screen shot, or any other image, from editing is to apply a watermark to it and look for any breaks in it. However, since the entire screen shot process takes place on your computer, there's no guarantee that the image wasn't manipulated before the watermark was placed on the image, making even that only a limited step. 

File -> Save As

Another popular, but relatively weak, method for preserving plagiarism is to simply load up the infringing page and then use the "File -> Save As" command in your browswer to save a copy of the page to your hard drive. 

I use a variation of this method that involves the Scrapbook Firefox extension to help me organize and tag the different cases of plagiarism I am handling. However, I would never use it to provide proof of an infirngement. 

Simply put, stored copies of a page are easier to edit since you have access to the source code. They also lack effective time and date stamping functions and, since they come will all of the attached files, can be a kludge to handle and present to others.

In the end, stored copies of a Web page can be a great asset when trying to keep your own records, but should never be relied upon as proof of infringement, either in the court of law or the court of public opinion.

Third Party Services

Since it is obvious that any evidence that comes solely from your computer will most likely be met with distrust, the logical solution becomes to seek out a third party to aid in the process. Fortunately, there are several places that are available to help.

First, the Internet Archive has cached copies of most Web pages dating back to 1996. Though its updates are infrequent and irregular, if an infringement has been going on for some time, there's a decent chance that the Internet Archive has grabbed it. All you have to do in order to find the cached version is paste in the infringing URL and find the correct link in the page's history. 

Equally useful is WebCite a powerful, free caching tool aimed at fighting linkrot when citing sources online. But in addition to helping bloggers cite their sources without fear of dead links, WebCite also has all of the features one would expect from a caching service wanting to provide proof of infringement. This include date and time stamps, the ability to cache multiple copies of a page to show change over time and the ability to immediately save a perfect copy of the page.

These services, and others like them, are critical because there is no way for a user to manipulate the saved pages without having access to either the plagiarist's server or the cache service itself. They also offer an easy way to reference the evidence, namely a link and they require no special skills or tools to use.

The main drawback to these services is that they can not cache everything. If a site designates that it does not want cached copies of it to exist, neither the Internet Archive nor WebCite will grab it. However, since very few sites use such tags, it will, most likely, be a very rare occurence.

All in all, these services provide the best all-around means of preserving and proving an infringement took place. They can also be used to prove when a work went online, as can services such a Numly, and compare changes in a Web page over time, perhaps to see how a plagiarist responds to the exposing of his or her acts.

Why Capture 

Since so few cases of plagiarism and/or copyright infringement ever go to court, one has to wonder if it's worth the time and effort to preserve evidence of infringement. Though the tools are free and the time is minimal, preserving evidence of the infringement is still an added step that, most of the time, can be skipped over.

However. there are several good reasons for taking the few extra seconds to gather your evidence. and collect proof of the infirngement:

  1. Your Own Records:  When looking back through past cases of plagiarism, it's handy to have a visual reminder of each case. Sites, names and works stolen can blur together if you deal with many cases, but a quick visual reminder can be worth a fortune.
  2. The Court of Public Opinion: Plagiarists will often try to lash out at their victims and, at times, getting a plagiarist's site shut down is not the end of things. Many will cry to anyone who will iisten about how you "unfairly" shut down their site "for no reason". If you are ever called upon to justify your actions, a cached copy may be your only hope.
  3. Comparison: Deja vu is very common when dealing with plagiarists. If you think you've heard that name, seen that style or know that layout from somewhere else, you're probably right. However, the only way to prove it or put that notion to use is with backup copies. In short, cached copies can help out a great deal when dealing with repeat plagiarists
  4. The Slim Chance: Finally, though few cases ever do make it to trial, it's impossible to tell which one might. The plagiarist might look to be an amateur running a second-rate Blogspot blog, but they might also be distributing copies of your work and be on the verge of a major publishing/recording/photography contract. Simply put, the trial of a plagiarism case is never simple and often times goes in completely unexpected ways.

In the end, it takes so little time and energy to save evidence of a plagarist's activities that it is a waste not to preserve it. It's important to remember that, once a site is removed, all evidence of it is gone save that which is controlled by the plagiarist him or herself. If you would like to have your side of the story available to tell, you need to make sure that you have some kind of back up copy readily available.


The bottom line when it comes to preserving evidence of infringement on the Internet is that, while it's not as easy as placing critical papers in a safe or shoving them in a locked drawer, it is something that can be done quickly and easily. if one is willing to look at new solutions to classic problems.

Even if the plagiarism incident never makes it into a court of law, it's very important to preserve evidence and protect your interests. There are still plenty of ways in which a little backup can go a very long way.

It's something that only takes a second to do and requires no additional money or skills and only takes a little bit of time. Still, it's something that's easy to overlook when working to shut down a plagiarist and frequently gets skipped in the heat of the moment.

Still, it's far too important to ignore and, with the tools listed above, takes only a few seconds to do. There's no reason to ever let it slip again.

[tags]Plagiarism, Content Theft, Copyright Infringement, DMCA, Screen Shots[/tags] 

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