Confronting Plagiarism Face-to-Face

Duane Lester ImageDuane Lester is the blogger behind All American Blogger. Recently, he discovered that an article he had written about a Missouri sheriff was plagiarized verbatim, by a local newspaper, The Oregon Times Observer, and, after asking for some advice from an attorney on Twitter, he decided to take action.

However, his action didn’t involve merely emailing a threatening letter or having an attorney draft a copyright lawsuit, instead, he drove down to the office of the newspaper with proof in hand and a demand for $500. The confrontation, which was videotaped, lasted under 7 minutes and was, at points, extremely heated.

In the end, Lester got what he wanted, a $500 check made out for “Bull shit” and the video of the incident, which is embedded below, has become a popular video on YouTube.

But was it the right approach to the problem and should others emulate it? The answers to those questions aren’t so clear and raise many other questions of their own.

Getting Personal Over Plagiarism

To be absolutely clear, I have no love whatsoever for what The Oregon-Times Observer and its editor, Bob Ripley, did. To take a blog entry verbatim, without attribution or permission and put it on the front page of a newspaper is probably one of the worst ways one can plagiarize.

It is a despicable act and, if anything, deserves a harsher penalty than just a $500 invoice. Furthermore, Ripley’s response to the problem, as seen in the video, indicates that he felt he had done nothing wrong with the infringement, raising serious questions regarding his moral standing and his credibility as a journalist.

There is no doubt that the paper here is in the wrong and that they, despite the viral video, got off fairly easy in all of this (at least in terms of potential damages – provided Lester had promptly registered the work with the U.S. Copyright Office).

But was Lester wise to march into the office with his demand in hand? Probably not.

Lester handled the situation amazingly well, remaining completely calm even when Ripley was clearly losing his temper. He did and said nothing that would jeopardize his legal position. However, as this video shows confronting someone over an allegation of plagiarism is always a risk, no matter how you do it. However, when you do it face-to-face, the situation gets much more unpredictable and the risks get much higher.

There are many ways that this scenario could have gone bad, ranging from the extreme, such as a physical attack (rather than just a threat of physical violence) to Ripley simply refusing to pay and directing the matter to his attorney (which was also threatened in this video).

This type of confrontation is, essentially, an all-or-nothing gamble. You’ll either get the situation resolved or make the situation much worse and unlikely to ever be realistically handled. Which happens depends almost entirely on how the other person reacts, which is impossible to predict going in. The other person will either cave or dig their heels in deeper.

There are also other serious risks with this kind of approach. For one, you risk doing and saying things, in particular in the heat of the moment, that can jeopardize your legal position or, worse still, give them reason to take legal action against you. Another is that you risk a public relations nightmare, especially if you come on too strong, as people might see you as the jerk for badgering an alleged plagiarist.

In short, this type of move is very risky and, though it worked out for Lester, there’s no guarantee it will work out for you or anyone else.

The Need for a Better Approach

I understand well where Lester was coming from with this video. I’ve been there myself and felt the emotions that he must have felt when he learned of the plagiarism. It’s very hard to see something you worked hard on published elsewhere under someone else’s name, especially in such an egregious manner.

Back then, if I’d had the chance to trivially hop in my car and knock on a plagiarist’s door, I probably would have done just that. However, my plagiarists were spread out all over the world and, mostly, were at least semi-anonymous online. An opportunity never arose until much later and, for that, I am actually glad.

Dealing with plagiarism already means being prepared to go to war. You have to be ready to fight for what’s yours even though, sometimes at least, it means hurting people’s careers, taking away their livelihoods and even destroying relationships. Outing someone as a plagiarist, no matter how you do it, can have drastic consequences for that person.

Of course, destroying something built upon lies should never be a painful process for the person who was injured, but it often is. If you’re not prepared for that, then dealing with plagiarism directly may not be for you.

However these consequences are a big part of why plagiarism needs to be handled carefully, especially when you don’t know all of the facts with 100% certainty. For example, what would have happened if Lester had walked in and learned that the paper was sold the story by a fraudulent 3rd party and the claim could be backed up? What if it had been obtained on a “free article site” where it had been illegally posted? If so, his tactic could have created a great deal of undue stress, made him appear to be a bully and caused the paper to be much less cooperative.

Sending a demand letter via the mail, hiring an attorney to negotiate the case or even calling the company to ask about the article would have been safer plans that would have accounted for more contingencies. However, even if we assume that it is a completely reasonable approach under the circumstances, it’s still not an approach that’s repeatable nor is it particularly quick when one accounts for all of the preparation that went into it.

As most know, when developing a strategy for dealing with plagiarism, I always work to find one that is fast, effective and can work over and over again. This approach would not work with a larger newspaper, a website or almost any other company or individual. The fact it was a small-town paper is why Lester was able to obtain the access and leverage he needed to make it work.

Those elements are not present in many, if not most, cases of plagiarism. This more or less necessitates finding other strategies to deal with the bulk of your cases, even if you feel comfortable with face-to-face confrontations.

Bottom Line

As is right now, the video is a near-perfect evisceration of a plagiarist. A calm, collected Lester parries angry jabs and threats from a clearly flustered Ripley until, at the end, Ripley feels he has no choice other than to pull out his checkbook. Ripley could have simply said the he will take the matter under advisement with his attorney and that he had no comment, but he chose instead to argue and he paid for it.

The video is a beautiful piece of work, a deeply satisfying comeuppance for a plagiarist that seems to have truly deserved it.

However, I find it difficult to enjoy as I watch it. Twelve years of experience in fighting plagiarism has me thinking instead about the “what ifs” and the potential problems. What if Lester hadn’t kept his cool? What if Ripley had responded differently? What if there were unknown variable in the situation?

This video could have ended much differently and much more tragically for Lester. He could have put himself at legal risk, he could have been made to look like the bully and he could have been the one regretting the encounter.

Lester took a huge risk and won, for that the entire Web is grateful. But I would hate to see what would happen if things had turned out differently.

That, unfortunately, would not have taken much.

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