I’ve been tracking plagiarists on the Web for the better part of a decade and I’ve watched as they seem to have followed well-known trends on the Internet, constantly shifting to the latest tools and hang outs.
When I first started dealing with plagiarists in 2001, the problem was primarily on message boards and forums. This made sense. Forums were the most popular means of socialization at the time and they were by far the easiest way for someone with limited Web experience to publish content.
So, even though I regularly ran across a personal home page or even a blog that had plagiarized copies of my work, most of my time was spent working with forum admins.
However, over the years that has shifted. Forums are now more of an Internet curiosity than an established meeting place. Social networking is now, quite literally, the hottest thing on the Web and with profile, blogging and image tools built in, they are by far the easiest way to publish a work on the Web.
So, with this trend, plagiarists have also begun to flock to social networks. Of all of the human-made plagiarism of my content I deal with, approximately 75% take place on social networking sites.
However, whenever I say “Social Networking”, I am actually being generous. Nearly 95% of all of my social networking issues, and thus well over half of all of my issues in general, come from one site: Myspace.
This is something that has me very worried.
Rupert Murdoch’s Empire of Social Plagiarism
Sadly, I am not alone in my issues with Myspace. Nearly every author I have asked about their plagiarism problems have put Myspace either at or near the top of their list. This is especially true for anyone who writes poetry, short stories or other creative works that might appeal to Myspace users.
The only group that doesn’t seem to put Myspace at the top of their list is fan fiction authors. They are one of the few groups that still see the worst issue with forums and community sites. However, fan fiction plagiarism creates a whole new set of problems beyond the scope of this article.
The Myspace issue isn’t limited to writers either. Ask any artist or photographer where they see the most unwanted copying, they’ll usually mention Photobucket. Photobucket, however, is owned by Fox Corp., which also owns Myspace, and the two sites are closely linked. In fact, much of Photobucket’s initial popularity, before it was bought out, was derived from Myspace users wanting to host images and videos in their profiles.
But while it makes sense that the largest social networking site and the largest photo sharing site would attract the largest number of plagiarists, these sites see copyright infringement way out of proportion to their numbers. Where Myspace may be a little bit ahead of Facebook, I see hundreds of cases of plagiarism the former with almost none on the latter.
The question becomes “Why is that true?” and “What can be done about it?”
Copy and Paste Haven
To see the problem first hand, all you have to do is either browse around a few Myspace profiles or visit Photobucket’s home page. Though many people use these sites to post legitimate content, the majority seems to have performed at least one act of likely copyright infringement.
The problem is so serious that scripts have been developed exclusively to detect image copying on Photobucket (more on this script later) and it seems that you can’t go anywhere on Myspace or Photobucket without encountering likely infringements.
Users of these sites are content hungry. They need text, images, video and audio to complete their profiles. On one hand, this has created a whole cottage industry around providing licensed content for Myspace, including profile layouts. On the other, it has lead to a copy and paste culture that can be very dangerous.
Though plagiarism and copyright infringement takes place everywhere, in my experience, the number of likely infringements on Myspace profiles dwarf those on Facebook. Why this is seemingly true is complicated, but there are five potential reasons I see for it.
- Public Profiles: Myspace profiles are, for the most part, visible to general public. This not only makes it easier to find infringements, thus increasing the number found, but adds motivation for people to beef up their profiles, sometimes motivating people to take content that is not theirs. I see a similar trend on dating sites that have public profiles.
- Younger Audience: Most of the plagiarists I deal with on Myspace are under the age of 25. Myspace seems to cater to a younger audience and, for whatever reason, they seem more prone to abusing copy and paste on the Web.
- Low Expectation of Originality: In a way, it is hard to call much of the content use on Myspace plagiarism. There is a very low expectation of originality on the site as most people recognize that the images and other profile touches came from somewhere else, attributed or not. This is less true with the blogs and profile information sections, but it is clear that most Myspace users don’t expect fellow members to create every element of their profile.
- Permissive Takedown System: Though Fox responds quickly to all DMCA notices and removes infringing works, it is very slow to ban users. I have seen many cases where a Myspace user has lifted ten or more works and Myspace simply removed the infringing work without deleting the user as a repeat infringer.
- High Degree of Customization: Myspace, unlike many other networks, allows users to edit almost every aspect of their profile’s look and feel, leading to far more opportunities for abuse.
All in all, the reason Myspace is such a haven for plagiarists is not a simple question to answer, but rather, there seems to be a combination of factors contributing to the problem.
Fixing it, however, is going to be even more difficult.
Solving the Problem
Myspace, as a site presents several critical challenges for writers and artists.
First, there is almost no way to contact the infringer directly unless you already have a Myspace account and can send them a message. However, such messages are a risky way to resolve copyright disputes as the paper trail is very limited.
Second, as mentioned above, Myspace does respond well to DMCA notices but rarely takes action against heavily infringing users. This can make it difficult to handle any infringer that has taken many different works.
Finally, the nature of Myspace is one where works posted are passed around almost immediately. It is something of an enclosed ecosystem where a poem, an image or an article will enter into the environment and then travel throughout the service, often carrying dozens of different names.
Overcoming this will not be easy and there is no way that a single Webmaster or copyright holder can do so. It is going to take a concerted effort to change both the culture of Myspace and the approach of its parent company.
The best advice I can give right now is to be aggressive when dealing with infringements on Photobucket and Myspace. Actively seek out infringements on the sites and report them quickly. Once image search tools allow users to detect infringements on Photobucket, use those tools as well and aggressively demand removal.
The goal is two fold. First, motivate Fox to create a more efficient and usable copyright system and the second is to change the culture of these sites. Currently, on YouTube, there is a great deal of infringement but users, for the most part, expect any likely infringing video to be pulled down. As a result, those who care about their YouTube account are careful not to post such videos and the most successful YouTube users feature original content.
The goal is not to eliminate copyright infringement on the site, that will never happen, but create an ecosystem that encourages creativity and rewards originality. The difference in such a system is obvious when one looks at a site such as Flickr and then goes to visit Photobucket.
The sad truth is that there is very little that we can do from the outside to help shape the type of site Myspace is to become. In addition to its large size and strong, if at times annoying, culture, there seems to be a lot of foot dragging on Fox’s end.
But what is frustrating about this problem is just that infringement seems to be so rampant on these sites, but that legitimate users of them seem to share the burden.
There is a reason why Myspace is not taken as seriously as Facebook or Photobucket as seriously as Flickr and the issue of copyright infringement is a big part of the equation.
This is most unfortunate not just for the artists and writers that have their work misused, but those that use those sites and try to do good things with it. Their reputations are tarnished by association.
Fortunately, most of those who use or did use those sites for the purpose of displaying their own work have at least established presences elsewhere.
If one wants to be taken seriously, it is clear that Myspace nor Photobucket is the place to do it.