I’ve been fighting cases of plagiarism for nearly a decade now and have handled over 700 cases involving my work and easily hundreds for others. With over well 1,000 cases of plagiarism under my belt, I’ve seen a lot and I have a good number of war stories.
That being said, not a lot scares me any more. I’ve been threatened with a lawsuit over two dozen times, though none have materialized, I’ve been called every name in the book and even had one plagiarist go through the effort of creating an entire site dedicated to bashing me.
Not much really scares me any more but there is one type of case that, I have to admit, always gets under my skin. It’s a rare kind of plagiarism that I’ve only seen a few times but, without fail, it has turned ugly and has even involved death threats, harassing phone calls and more.
I call it the “Single White Female” (SWF) plagiarism type and it is, without a doubt, the only kind of plagiarism that really makes me nervous.
Defining “Single White Female” Plagiarism
I named this type of plagiarism after the 1992 movie with the same name. To summarize the movie in a way that is relatively spoiler-free, the protagonist, named “Allie” and played by Bridget Fonda, takes on a roommate, named “Hedy” and played by Jennifer Leigh, who begins, after a series of conflicts, to slowly, to imitate her in every way.
It starts with small things such as borrowing her clothes and changing her hair but it escalates until Hedy is essentially trying to take over Allie’s life/become her twin, including taking her boyfriend/fiancé.
Though the movie itself has largely been forgotten, it illustrates what this kind of plagiarism is really about. Where most plagiarists online are either simply trying to impress others or get out of doing work, there’s definitely a deeper drive in a handful of plagiarists. They go beyond taking a few works and, instead, try to take over the victim’s entire online presence including their name and identity.
Separating these cases from merely dedicated professional plagiarists is tricky but there seems to be three distinguishing characteristics:
- Complete Identity Swapping: Most plagiarists, by their very nature, affix their identity to the work of others. SWF plagiarists, instead, try to assume the identity of the victim, even changing their personal information to fit the victim, even when it serves no purpose related to the plagiarism.
- Only One Target: SWF plagiarists will take a lot of content but from only one target. They make make minor modifications but usually do very little to hide the source of their work and will not take content from anyone else. This routinely goes as far as images (including family photos), layouts and other work related to the original pieces.
- Continuing Even After Shutdown: SWF plagiarists rarely stop after the first time they are caught and will reemerge repeatedly using the same techniques and make no attempt to hide their efforts.
In short, what seems to typify this type of plagiarist is that they genuinely believe that either the work is their or that it should be. The one that latched on to me even went so far as to, in a private email, to claim to be me and accuse me of being the impostor, in easily one of the most surreal conversations I’ve ever had.
They are attempting, more or less, to assume the identity of their victim, at least on line and possibly in person, and will go to great lengths to make it happen.
No Laughing Matter
It would be easy to dismiss these cases as mere Internet impersonation, similar to kids pretending to be celebrities in chat rooms or fake celebrity accounts on Twitter, but it seems to run much deeper than that.
I’ve only been threatened with violence three times in nearly ten years and all three were these kinds of cases. When confronted, even by the victim, these plagiarists tend to lash out with a level of anger wildly out of touch with the situation. Some have reported threats of violence, harassing phone calls and other forms of intrusion.
Though big-name celebrities might be used to this kind of unwanted attention and have people/systems in place to deal with it, the cases I’ve dealt with involved relatively small-name artists and writers, people far away from the limelight but, as public figures putting their work on the Web, still became targets.
The scariest part though is that it is very difficult to know going in that the case will blow up. When looking at the site, it often appears to be just an aggressive plagiarist trying to make their misuse believable, not someone who genuinely believes they are the originator or simply trying to take over their victim’s identity.
These cases can go from nasty but mundane to frightening and extraordinary in seconds and few such plagiarists seem willing to let go after the first shutdown.
Dealing with These Cases
There is no “good” way to deal with these cases, especially since one usually don’t know what they have on their hands until it has already turned heated.
However, if you suspect that someone who is taking your content may be harboring something deeper, the best thing you can do is the usual steps for stopping plagiarism.
The reason is that, usually in cases where there are warning signs, there’s no such response but even if the case does go off the rails, it is usually better to have been treating it as a typical plagiarism case as it prevents the plagiarist from feeling they received any special treatment for or against them.
If you do find yourself in such a case and you are given serious threats of violence, notify the appropriate authorities but continue with the case as if it were any other plagiarism matter. This includes filing takedown notices and other legal action as appropriate. Letting yourself be bowed only makes things worse in the long run by empowering the person doing the plagiarism.
However, though it should not need to be said, it is crucial that you do not return the hostilities nor even respond to them. This is a bad idea in virtually any case but is doubly bad here as it validates and encourages the hostile response.
All in all though, the best thing you can do is respond to any threats appropriately and try to move forward with the case like you would any other. Usually, the other person will eventually get the hint but it may take several tries.
The good news in all of this is that, though these cases often go through several cycles, if you’re diligent and deal with them and don’t let yourself be scared off, most of these impostor plagiarists will eventually move on, very likely to another target.
But the lesson is simply this, though we may not be celebrities by any stretch on, by posting our work on the Web and becoming public figures, we reap many of the benefits and bear many of the risks.
These cases are extremely rare and, without too much guesswork on a psychological front, seems to stem from individuals who have serious issues beyond their plagiarism, Most who post work online, even prolifically, will not see this kind of plagiarism.
But you still need to be on the lookout because, if you do, it can mean a world of trouble and a very scary time.