As the issue of plagiarism and content theft draws more and more attention on the web, in particular among bloggers, several Webmasters are posting their experiences with content theft and some intrepid writers are producing their own guides for fighting content theft on the Web.
Though the attention to this issue is welcome, many of these guides contain false, misleading or incomplete information. Though they are produced by smart, well-intentioned people, their errors can lessen the effectiveness of their strategies and, in some cases, expose the person following it to legal danger.
For example, one guide I encountered a year ago encouraged people to take their grievances public immediately and post them to a special forum. Not only is this time-consuming and unlikely to succeed in many cases, but it opens up the person doing the posting to a libel suit if their information is wrong.
However, such dangerous mistakes are relatively rare and are usually limited to small and obscure sites. Instead, the most common mistake made when crafting an anti-plagiarism strategy is something much more simple: Forgetting about the host.
As strange as it may sound, the most common omission in many of thse guides is the most effective tactic of all, getting the site shut down.
Skipping a Step
It seems that most guides on plagiarism fighting are pretty good at telling you ways to detect the infringement and to contact the plagiarist. Many provide stock cease and desist letters to send to the infringing Webmaster and advice on how to deal with different kinds of plagiarists.
However, should that step fail, a majority of these guides will then offer advice on how to get the content removed from the search engines or get the site’s advertising cut.
Though targeting advertisers can be a very effective way of dealing with profit-motivated plagiarism, such as with scrapers, neither that nor targeting search engines is as useful for deflecting the potential problems that come with being plagiarized as getting the site or the content removed.
Interestingly enough, many guides will include DMCA contact information and stock letters for contacting the search engine, but will completely omit any information about sending such a letter to the host.
Whenever I see such an omission, I comment on it and, in most cases, it is corrected fairly quickly. I have only seen a few such guides remain for a long period of time without this critical information.
Still, the frequency of this mistake has made me wonder why so many people overlook it. However, it didn’t take me long to think of a few potential answers as to why.
The Hardest Button to Button
The problem with filing a DMCA notice with a host is that it can be a very daunting challenge. Even if you have the template handy, you have to first know how to determine who the host is, then, if they are in the U.S., locate their DMCA contact information and then contact via the means they specify.
Sending notices to Google and the other search engines, by comparison, is very easy. If you have the template in hand, there is only one page you need to know for each search engine. It is pretty trivial, from there, to send out the notices without doing any research and not wading into any uncomfortable waters.
However, this is dangerous for several reasons:
- Doesn’t remove the content: Though it won’t turn up in the search engines you send the notice to, the plagiarized copies are still available on the Web and other search engines as well as human visitors can still access it.
- Turns the search engines into the copyright police: This concentrates all of the responsibility for policing copyright into three or four search engines. This was not the goal of the DMCA and it gives those companies too much power and responsibility in this matter. A change in policy of just one search engine could, potentially, have drastic implications on the Web.
- Can harm innocent bystanders: Search engine DMCA bans work differently from site to site but, in some cases, it is possible that more than the pages than intended can be banned, including pages written by other people.
While there is definitely a place and a time for using search engine DMCA bans, immediately following a cease and desist is not it. Typically, I only turn to search engine bans when everything else has failed and I am prepared to give up.
In my mind, it is a way to do something when it seems nothing can be done at all.
Correcting the Problem
Since fewer people are comfortable with sending DMCA notices to host, fewer people use them. Since fewer people use them, fewer people write about them and that means that fewer people know about their existence.
This in a brutal cycle where more and more people get incomplete information. Not only does this lead people to use less effective tactics, but leads to mistakes down the road when they attempt to contact the host, often resulting in false or incomplete notices.
The key, then, becomes to make sure that more people are aware this method of dealing with plagiarism and push them to take advantage of it. It also means working to ensure that they have the tools available to file a proper notice and send it to the correct person.
If we can do that, along with providing basic copyright information, we can go a long way to reducing the copyright drama that exists on the Web.
The vast majority of people who post anti-plagiarism guides are good, well-intentioned people that are trying to help others. Unfortunately, they are not always right and sometimes that advice can lead people astray.
It is important, when researching an anti-plagiarism strategy, not to just read one guide, but two or three. Don’t take any one person’s word, including mine, as gospel. Seek out other opinions, views and strategies. There is a constant dialog going on and, though I try to report on it, the Web is a big place and I don’t see absolutely everything.
Build your own strategy based upon your needs, time constraints and skills. When appropriate, experiment. If you learn something that works or see something new, share it with others and drop me a note as well.
I am always on the lookout for new techniques and strategies in prevention, detection and cessation that can help myself and other Webmasters. Input and feedback is always appreciated.
Note: I have not linked any of the guides that inspired me to create this story. My goal with this is not to call anyone out or embarrass anyone. These are complicated issues and mistakes are understandable. I want to encourage others to create more guides, not shame people that make simple mistakes. Furthermore, nearly all of the guides that I’ve seen with this error have since been fixed.