Most of the time when content from the Web is plagiarized, it winds up somewhere else on the Web. Scraped feeds wind up in spam blogs, swiped pictures become images/logos on other sites, etc. It can be a vicious circle where content is constantly recycled and all attribution is lost.
However, sometimes the content does not go straight back to the Web. Consider the recent cases of a DevianArt photographer who had her work used without permission in a newspaper ad and a reviewer on Opuszine that had a large portion of his review plagiarized in a college newspaper.
Such plagiarism raises a spate of new questions as it leaves behind both the traditional detection and resolution methods Webmasters have become familiar with. There is no Copyscape, Google Alerts or search engines. There is no DMCA, no comment form and search engine result pages to get them removed from.
Such plagiarism raises new challenges that can not be easily met. Dealing with such challenges requires a new way of looking at things and a look back at the way such matters used to be handled.
My Personal Experience
About two years ago, I received a Google Alert for a poem of mine. The link pointed me to a garbled PDF file that contained the work underneath another name.
I started to ready my DMCA notice when I noticed that the site had an EDU domain. I looked closer at the PDF and noticed that it was a literary magazine for a prepatory school in the Western U.S.
I realized quickly that the online aspect was part of the problem. The literary magazine had been distributed to hundreds, if not thousands, of students and parents in print format.
I abandoned my normal track and researched the school. I found the name of the teacher that was in charge of the literary magazine and emailed her. Since it was late summer and weeks before the start of school, I did not expect a reply right away.
Still, two days later I had my response. The teacher said she would take the matter up with the principal when school started. Two weeks after that, I got a personal apology from the principal and an assurance that the situation had been handled. They also printed a correction in the next literary magazine.
It was far more than I expected or ever considered asking for, all of my correspondence was with the intent to inform. The incident ended very happily and with minimal impact to other, more honest, students.
However, such a relatively happy ending is not always the case for such incidents. Offline plagiarism of Web content introduces several new challenges that can be tough to overcome. This can be compounded by editors and producers that are often less than helpful when it comes to resolving such matters.
The problem with offline plagiarism of online content is that it completely defies the traditional methods of handling content theft. Consider the following challenges:
- No Methods of Detection: First, the normal methods of detecting plagiarism don’t work with printed works. If something has never been put on the Web, there is no easy way to search for it, save perhaps expensive databases such as Lexis Nexis.
- No DMCA: The DMCA applies to Web hosts and search engines. There is no similar provision for or against offline uses of work. Courts can block publication of an infringing work, but the process is time consuming and expensive.
- Weakened Credibility: Generally speaking, most people put more credibility on printed sources, especially those coming from mainstream media houses, than on Web sources. Though author, photographer and journalist plagiarism scandals have dampened that credibility. It is generally assumed that most are legitimate and that the Webmaster, especially one operating on his or her own, is more likely to be the plagiarist.
It becomes clear that dealing with offline plagiarism is something of an uphill battle, especially when compared to dealing with it on the Web. Though some cases may frustrate and not follow normal routes online, those are the exception. Offline, they become the rule.
Overcoming the Obstacles
The good news is that all of the obstacles can be overcome, at least with some effort. All one has to do is look at the following variables:
- Most Content Winds up on the Web… Eventually: First, though there is no easy way to Google through newspaper ads or offline only books, most content does wind up on the Web eventually. Since it costs nothing and can greatly increase exposure, most smart print-based operations are jumping at the chance to include the Web in their strategy, either directly or through a third party such as Google. This bodes well for discovering plagiarism.
- Established Plagiarism Protocols: Plagiarism and content theft wasn’t started with the Web, newspapers, publishers and musicians have been dealing with it for centuries. They have well-established protocols for handlng cases of plagiarism and, for the most part, they work well.
- Electronic Evidence: The Web may be short on credibility, but it is very long on evidence. Things posted to the Web carry date and timestamps. Though some can be manipulated, ones buried deeper can not. If one disbelieves the evidence provided, it’s trivial to ask a host to provide the logs or use a non-repudiation service to back up the claim.
In short, the obstacles of dealing with plagiarism in the bricks and mortar world can be met, it’s just a matter of finding the right way to meet those challenges and taking advantage of the benefits of Internet publishing.
Defeating the Plagiarists
Though there is no way to detect and stop all offline plagiarsts, the same as there is no way to detect and stop all online ones, there are steps that you can take to help thward anyone that might be so bold as to try.
- Broaden Your Searches: Ensure that your plagiarism searches cover all applicable offline media when possible. If you post reviews, check newspaper sites such as Google News. Also, search Google Books for your work might appear in printed text. Finally, ensure that any search you use can catch text in PDF files. Most can and that’s important as many printed works are simply uploaded to the Web in PDF format.
- Go Through Traditional Channels: Books and newspapers have editors. Advertising agencies have managers. Almost everyone in the print world has someone that they are accountable to and it is very rare for the highest rung to be aware of or condoning plagiarism. The legal risks alone are enough to discourage that. If you discover your work has been plagiarized, contact the person responsible for that publication and let them know immediately. If they are a legitimate publication, and sometimes even if they aren’t, they will take action.
- Be Prepared to Back Up Your Claims: It’s always a good idea to be prepared to prove your case, even when only doing with online plagiarism. It is doubly important though with offline plagiarists. Consider using a non-repudiation service, such as Numly or Registered Commons, or at least forging a good relationship with your host so they can help you in a time of crisis.
- If Traditional Channels Fail, Get a Lawyer: Generally speaking offline cases of plagiarism are much more likely to be worth going to court over than online ones. The financial stakes are higher and thus the claims can be too. Lawyers are much more likely to take up cases that involved printed copyright infringement than online only ones.
The bottom line is that there are ways to handle such matters and the vast, vast majority of them do not involve lawyers, a great loss of time or a lot of energy. One just has to be willing to think about how to move in a different industry and handle thing according to their rules.
Despite the seeming never-ending spate of scandals involving journalists and publishers, most members of the print media are honest and won’t plagiarize. Offline cases of plagiarism will remain rare as an overall percentage. The editorial process, the risks (including reputation and occupational risks) and public nature of such failings will keep offline plagiarism cases, especially in major publications, relatively rare.
Still, it is worthwhile to be prepared and to take steps to head off such matters. Simple adjustments to search an resolution methods can help detect and stop offline plagiarism before it is able to hurt your reputation.
Even though such cases will only make up a very small percentage of all plagiarism cases you are likely to encounter, they headaches they can cause make them worth bracing for.
After all, it isn’t such a small percentage when it takes up hours of your time or causes the most damage. At that point it becomes almost your entire plagiarism battle.