There’s a strange notion on the Web that goes as follows: If the author of a work isn’t charging for it and the plagiarist isn’t profiting from his use, then no harm is done.
After all, the logic continues, the creator still has their original work, they really haven’t been deprived of anything. Nothing is stolen, nothing is lost. Therefore, no harm is done.
That is simply not true.
Because plagiarism isn’t just about money or tangible goods, it’s about reputation and, on the Web, reputation is something that no amount of money can buy.
Not All About the Benjamins
Most people who post their works online aren’t seeking fame and fortune, they’re seeking an audience. Whether or not they have dreams of making it a profession some day, they are talking to be heard and listened to.
Whether they want an audience of a thousands or a few dozen, they want to be heard, loved, hated and/or respected.
Many would argue, quite understandably, that free distribution of one’s work would aid in that goal by increasing both readership and reputation. Creative Commons Licenses were created in part to ease that form of sharing, one where both author and user benefit.
Plagiarism, however, does nothing to improve the reputation of the original author. Though it might increase readership slightly, putting the work in front of a few new eyeballs, it denies the original author of reputation that they earned by posting their work freely online and it denies the public the ability to reward the individual that put forth the labor.
Plagiarism does indeed hurt the original author, just not always in a material way.
Damaging the Reputation
The law already recognizes that one’s reputation has value. Defamation law, which includes both libel and slander, protects individuals against false attacks on their character. In other countries, moral rights further such protections when dealing with copyrightable works.
However, plagiarism doesn’t so much attack or injure one’s reputation as it deprives the content creator of their investment in their reputation. By posting works online, they hope to bolster their status on the Web and, possibly real life. While the outcome of this investment, as with any financial investment, is not guaranteed, there is a right to reap whatever rewards come from it.
While attributed reuse of content may direct more visitors to the original author and help them in the long run, plagiarized use splits the potential audience and does nothing to direct interested visitors to the person who created the work. Worse still, attribution costs the plagiarists nothing, just a boost in reputation that they have done nothing to deserve.
Many great sites have built large audiences and solid names by taking the best content they find and reusing it in a manner that benefits both the creator and themselves. Undoubtedly, they have bolstered many careers along the way.
Plagiarists, however, just siphon off precious attention and claim it for themselves, all the while contributing nothing to Web at large.
It Can Get Worse
Worse still, sometimes plagiarists can actually damage the reputation of the original author.
Though, in most cases, the plagiarist is easy to distinguish from the creator, there are times in which it can be difficult. Those cases can cast a shadow upon the content creator, who did nothing but freely share their work, and makes others question his or her legitimacy.
As many journalists, politicians, columnists and others know well, the stain of plagiarism, even if it is just a mirage, can be very hard to erase.
Even in cases where the difference appears obvious, doubts can linger. Personally, many have questioned the legitimacy of my work, even in cases where the plagiarist came along several years after the work was first posted.
Despite that, I don’t think that plagiarists have actively damaged my reputation on the whole. However, after seeing the fan bases some plagiarists have built up using my work, in one case involving several hundred readers, it has become painfully obvious that they have siphoned off readers that would have enjoyed my sties if they had used my work legitimately.
This leads me to wonder about the comments I never received, the letters I never I’ll never get and the opinions, positive and negative, that I’ll never hear.
That to me, is where the real robbery lies.
Plagiarists and those who are extreme anti-copyright like to pretend that plagiarism doesn’t harm authors. They like to talk about creative works as if they were tangible things that can never be truly stolen.
In some ways they are right, but they are also missing the point.
Artists, writers and other content creators work hard to produce works for the Internet to freely consume. If nothing else, they deserve respect for their efforts. The Web is about creating a balance between the creator, the community and the user. In matters of plagiarism, there is no such balance.
Even those who despise the very notion of copyright law should easily understand the desire to benefit from hours of toil and creativity, even if only in an immaterial way. Respecting that desire, especially in matters of attribution, enriches everyone involved.
In the end, it’s not about money, glory or even fame. It’s about being respected, being a part of the conversation that your work creates and reaping whatever benefits come from your contribution.
It’s about feeling like your contribution matters.