The Effect of the Economy on Plagiarism

The economy touches nearly every aspect of our lives. However, many of the changes we see often come in unexpected areas.

One such area that has not been getting a great deal of attention has been how people use content. The connection is logical, as people have less money to spend on entertainment the approach people take to copyrighted works will change. However, the results have been mixed with some studies showing a very sharp increase in illegal downloads while others reporting a slight decrease.

But more than just traditional piracy, the economy also affects plagiarism and how people create their own work. Where sometimes it can inspire creativity, such as lower-budget movies, other times it seems to inspire plagiarism.

This is why, for a while, I’ve seen a marked increase in what I previously called professional plagiarism, where plagiarists use a work to further either their career or their bottom line. Though the effect has been somewhat delayed in relation to the economy itself, it has become much more pronounced over the past few months.

Sadly, even as the economy improves this trend isn’t likely to go away and I’ll explain why.

The Problem

In my 2005 article, I defined professional plagiarism as any plagiarism “that takes place when in the pursuit of a profession.” This can include a lot of different types of plagiarism including misuse done while on the job, when looking for work or while doing a freelance project.

Right now is something of a perfect storm for this kind of plagiarism. Consider the following:

  1. People Out of Work: With as many as six people for every job opening, competition for work is fierce. This prompts some to give themselves an unethical edge, especially those who have been out of work for some time.
  2. Rise of Online Portfolios: Online portfolios are more important than ever to those entering creative fields. But even those who aren’t entering artistic fields often have their blogs and social networking profiles reviewed before hiring.
  3. Competitive Freelance Market: The freelance market, in general, is more competitive than usual. People are vying for jobs outside or above their usual area of expertise or are taking wages too low to make affordable without cutting corners.

Though these are sympathetic cases, especially since the plagiarists are often just trying to make ends meet, it is important to remember that it is both the honest and talented who are hurt the most by this, denied the work and pay they deserve, and the customers/employers of the plagiarist that get shoddy work they often have to redo.

But even if you do sympathize with the plagiarists, it’s also clear that this is a major pain for the creators they lift from and that is the pain that seems to be spreading the most.

Who’s Affected?

From what I’ve seen Web design and development seems to be the epicenter of the problem currently.

A large part of this is because Web developers are often asked to wear multiple hats. A programmer is often asked to design, a designer asked to write content, etc. This is caused by companies scaling back these departments, the tight job market and, once again, freelancers feeling as if they have to take on more than they can.

But the impact of this kind of plagiarism is very widespread. It starts with other Web designers, who often find their work misused, but also affects visual artists and writers, who often find their work incorporated into the theme and content of these sites.

However, the problem isn’t limited to just Web design. I’ve seen plagiarized writing jobs, misused photographs and much more. With less work and more jobseekers, nearly every job where the creation of creative works is involved is a lightning rod for plagiarism.

If you are a professional artist, of any variety, or even just an amateur that is wanting to prevent this kind of use, it is important to be aware of the climate and take steps to guard against it.

What to Do

If you are an artist or other creative and are concerned about this, there are a few steps you can take right away, all for free.

  1. Search For Your Works: Search regularly for your content. Plagium and FairShare are great for non-RSS and RSS text respectively. Tineye is a great resource for visual artists.
  2. Use a Non-Repudiation Service: A service that can verify the time and date of a work’s creation is very useful when dealing with professional plagiarism. Cases that don’t involve companies earning a profit from the work rarely make it to court but often devolve into “he said/he said” disputes. Myows and Safe Creative are both great alternatives there. Remember though, it is no substitute for registration with the Copyright Office, just a stop gap.
  3. Handle With Care: Choose your approach to the case carefully. Some, such as a company making a lot of profit from your work, may require legal action (especially if you’ve been careful to register your works). Others, such as a portfolio use, may be best for a cease and desist or a takedown notice. Others cases, however, might be situations where the company is a victim too, sold a plagiarized work, and require a gentle touch. Don’t use the wrong approach for the wrong situation.

Finally, if you are an employer concerned about either buying plagiarized work from a freelancer or hiring a plagiarist, the simple solution is to vet the work before you pay for it or publish it. Use the tools above to check what you are given and make sure that the person you are working with is behind honest.

Likewise, it is best, if possible to check any work that is going to be publicly accessible for infringement as well, or at least do spot checks when possible.

Bottom Line

Unfortunately, this problem is not going to go away any time soon. Even if the economy does make a swift turnaround, it will be quite some time before the job market stabilizes. Even when that happens, the importance of online portfolios will only grow and the lessons learned by the plagiarists in this time will only stay with them.

In short, in my experience, the people who start building a career on plagiarism, even if in a time of desperation, rarely go back until they are caught and forced to stop. It is hard to go back, even if you have established, legitimate work that you can show, as your record follows you everywhere.

That is a big part of why it is important to deal with these kinds of plagiarism as soon as possible. The quicker they are handled, the fewer people that are hurt and the less damage done.

In the end, if you sympathize with these plagiarists, you’ll confront them as soon as possible, rather than waiting for them to build a career on their works and watch as another case brings their whole life crashing down.

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