Twelve Steps to Reducing Plagiarism

When protecting one's content, there are three pillars that they need to focus on: Prevention, Detection and Cessation. Any strategy that does not have at least some element of all three is doomed to fail.

However, developing a strategy based upon those pillars is not hard. In fact, each pillar can be met by a series of simple steps that any Webmaster, blogger or artist can do, regardless of their legal background.

Simply put, fighting plagiarism is not a question about whether or not you have a law degree, but rather, whether or not you are willing to invest the very modest amount of time required to do it.


Prevention is possibly the most important step in fighting plagiarism. Without it, even the best detection and cessation methods will be quickly overwhelmed. It's also some of the easiest and most painless steps that a Webmaster can implement when trying to protect their work.

  1. Post a Clear Copyright Notice and Policy: Though the public at large is better educated about copyright issues than ever, many copyright myths do remain. You can stamp most of those myths out by posting a clear copyright notice and a clear copyright policy on your site. I personally recommend both the standard copyright notice (© name year) but also the use of a Creative Commons License.
  2. Watermark Your Images: Images are stolen as often, if not more often, than text. A visible watermark on your images will discourage that. The trick is striking a balance between a watermark that is invasive enough to be effective, meaning not easily removed, but also small enough to still enjoy the image. Sample watermarking software can be found here.
  3. Prevent Image Leeching: Image leeching, or hotlinking, hurts a Webmaster two ways. First, it takes their content, second, it also takes their bandwidth and costs them money. However, there are simple scripts which can prevent image hotlinking, limiting such uses to the originating site. Any Webmaster that invests significant creativity into their images needs to look at these scripts. Sadly, this eliminates many popular image hosting services as they do not have ways to restrict access to certain sites.
  4. Establish Yourself in the Community: While everyone has to start somewhere, establishing yourself in the community which you are working in is a great deterrent to plagiarism. If people know who you are, they are less likely to steal from you as they realize the chances of getting caught go up drastically. Even though this may not work for all sites in all genres, generally those who are better known are not plagiarized as often.


Detection is nothing more than discovering plagiarism. It doesn't stop a single case of plagiarism, but without it the copyright holder is deaf and blind to it. Thus, they are unable to do anything to stop it. Since most plagiarists rely upon their acts never being discovered, detection is also, in a way, effective prevention. More importantly though, it is a necessity for cessation to ever take place.

  1. Use Google Alerts: Google, through use of its free Google Alerts tool, provides the hands-down easiest and most effective way to detect plagiarism of static works. Creating alerts for unique phrases contained within your works, up to 32 words long, surrounded by quotes can help detect and alert you to plagiarism or legitimate reuse without having to perform manual searches. While this would be prohibitively complicated for blogs or other rapidly-changing content, this is an effective way to detect plagiarism of static works such as articles, poems, stories, essays and so forth.
  2. Use Feedburner: Feedburner is a great service for a lot of different reasons. It provides effective metrics and other usage information for your feed. but it also provides excellent protection against abuse of your feed. Feedburner's "Uncommon Uses" feature helps to detect scraping and splogging of an RSS feed, one of the greatest content theft threats affecting bloggers.
  3. Perform vanity searches: Staying on top of the topics related to one's work is critical. Using services such as Technorati to keep up to date on new postings in your field is critical not just for improving your own work, but for tracking down potential plagiarists. Photographers should do similar searches on Flickr and other photography sites. Even though images are not searchable by default, the trends toward tagging and labeling photos makes it easy to stay on top of the subject of interest.
  4. Consider Copyscape: I've focused a great deal on the limitations of Copyscape. It's free version is too limited to be of much use and its pay version is prohibitively expensive. However, since it is free and easy, there is little harm in trying it out from time to time. It works better in some cases than others and may work well for your site. However, don't rely on it as the only or even primary source of plagiarism detection.


Cessation is the "dirty work" when it comes to plagiarism fighting. It's the process of taking someone who is a known plagiarist and making them stop. It's unpleasant, especially for people who like to avoid conflict, but necessary. However, in most cases, stopping plagiarism does not require an attorney and it is neither difficult nor ugly. One just has to be willing to put the intense emotions that are natural with such situations aside and be willing to focus on practical, effective solutions.

  1. Learn the Law: Very few people actually enjoy reading legal code, but taking a few minutes to familiarize yourself with the basics of copyright law is a must. Anyone who creates or uses intellectual property owes it to themselves to understand the surrounding laws. Also, familiarizing yourself with the DMCA (PDF), especially the safe harbor procedures, is a must for handling copyright matters on the Web.
  2. Prepare Stock DMCA and C&D Letters: The two greatest tools in any plagiarist fighter's toolbox is a good DMCA notice and a good cease and desist letter. These letters are largely formulaic and most of the content will be repeated again and again. Keeping the stock notices either in a wordpressor template or as an email template will save a lot of time and energy. It makes no sense to re-invent the wheel with every plagiarism incident, especially since most follow the same pattern.
  3. Become an Internet Investigator: Many plagiarism cases will require you to track down either the host of the site or the owner. While you don't need to be a geek to do that, it helps to know your way around a site like Domain Tools, which can help you do both of those things. It also pays to bookmark the U.S. Copyright list of designated agents as it covers a large number of the major Web hosts without the need to look much deeper.
  4. Play by the Rules: Remember, you have moral and legal obligations when you are protecting your own work. It's important to play by the rules and not simply shut down anyone you can  simply because you do not like them. Copyright holders need to forge good relationships with hosts and other gatekeepers in order to continue the fight. Playing fair and being honest are two critical steps in doing that.


Plagiarism fighting is neither hard nor time-consuming. If done right, it only takes up a small portion of one's time and efforts. However, given how much energy usually goes into creating a work it only makes sense to take a few extra moments to ensure that it is protected and being used appropriately.

After all, to a creative, one's work is not just their livelihood, but also a part of who they are. The desire to protect it is only natural.

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