Copyright, Plagiarism and Content Theft in 2014

Happy 2014!The last few hours of 2014 are trickling away. As the world begins to prepare its celebrations, it also takes a look back, using the turning of the calendar as an opportunity to be introspective about the year that was.

For copyright and plagiarism, that’s no different. While I already did my rundown of the top ten plagiarism stories of 2014 for the iThenticate blog, I wanted to take time here to look at the more overarching themes from the past year and what they mean for 2015 and beyond.

Simply put, 2014 was a very dynamic year for copyright, plagiarism and content theft issues and while there were dozens, if not hundreds, of major stories that broke, there were several themes that kept repeating themselves over and over again.

So what were those themes? Well, here are five of the big ones that I’ve seen along with the stories that made them so important.

1. Business Experimentation

There’s no doubt that the Internet has changed the game for content creators by both opening up new and exciting opportunities and creating new, unprecedented challenges. Content creators and the people who back them have been increasing their experimentation to try and maximize the returns on their time, money and expertise.

Sometimes that experimentation has pushed very traditional companies into new directions. In March of this year, Getty Images, a industry giant known for its aggressive copyright protection tactics, announced that it was making millions of images available for free embedding on non-commercial sites.

While the results were not particularly impressive, it represented a first step that few expected to see.

On the other side of the coin, others began to experiment with more traditional models. Taylor Swift, for example, famously pulled all of her music from streaming music services, focusing on selling her work. Though the move resulted in a war of words between the two sides, Swift remains the top selling artist and has been very vocal about her opposition to streaming services.

And then there was the recent and bizarre exception of Sony with “The Interview”. Following a hack and threats of terrorism, the major theater chains refused to show the film prompting Sony to release to to a hodgepodge of independent cinemas and online streaming services, making it one of the first major films to be released online ahead of its theatrical debut.

All in all, in 2014 a combination of broader and more focused shifts forced content creators to get creative with their businesses and, though the results are mixed, the experimentation will definitely continue.

2. The Rise of Citizen Plagiarism Detection/Enforcement

As the Internet has democratized publication, it has also democratized plagiarism detection and enforcement.

In Germany, this has been a source of public discussion for years with the VroniPlag Wiki challenging the dissertations (and degrees) of many of the country’s top politicians. However, the approach really hadn’t caught hold elsewhere, in particular in the U.S., until this year.

The centerpiece to this shift has been the blog Our Bad Media a blog written by two pseudonymous Twitter users that has focused on filing plagiarism allegations against members of the media. They were the ones to first highlight the activities of Benny Johnson, who was eventually fired from Buzzfeed over his plagiarism.

However, Buzzfeed also did a fair amount of plagiarism reporting, highlighting reports of plagiarism in two congressional campaigns.

The tools for detecting plagiarism have never been more advanced, easier to use and more available to the public. Judging from traffic to this site, interest in plagiarism has also never been higher. It’s only natural that the public will play a larger role in detecting plagiarism.

But in 2014 that role also extended to enforcement of plagiarism norms. For example, Our Bad Media has also filed new allegations against Fareed Zakaria and Malcom Gladwell. However, those allegations have failed, for the most part, to take hold, in large part because the evidence is much weaker or the infractions much less severe.

While, historically, plagiarism detection and enforcement has been the sole dominion of editors, instructors, etc. Now the public is playing a larger and larger role. Proof of this is in my run down of the top 10 stories on iThenticate, only one of the stories, Marie-Louse Gumuchian, was caught and punished solely by her editors. Every other case had outside help.

3. Piracy Becomes Personal

In 2014 there were two incidents that forever changed the tone about piracy and copyright infringement.

The first happened in September when some 20 female celebrities had their photos hacked and nude/risque/sexual photos of them were distributed on the Internet. The cache of photos became an instant hit online with hundreds of thousands of downloads.

Crudely entitled “The Fappening”, a Subreddit, a subsection of the site Reddit, was set up as a home base for the images. It became the fastest-growing Subreddit on the site until it was closed.

Even now, months later, the downloads and image searches remain popular.

In October, a similar leak happened but this one involving Snapchat. Dubbed “The Snappening”. This time around, nearly 200,000 photos were leaked though only a small portion were nude or risque.

The images were saved by a site named SnapSaved, which was used to save Snapchat images after their expiration. Though the site was, and still is, a violation of Snapchat’s terms of service, many such sites exist. As with the first leak, this too became a popular attraction on file sharing websites (though not as popular).

Though revenge and non-consensual pornography has been an issue for a long time and it’s a topic I’ve written/spoken about repeatedly, including at SXSW, this was the first time it every became a mass event.

These two incidents, combined with the massive reach of file sharing networks, pushed what is normally a localized and directed attack against one person and turned into a public spectacle. Copyright, privacy and sexuality all collided in what was a major mess for the victims.

Sadly, future incidents such as these are likely, both for celebrities and non-celebrities. It’s not a matter of if but when the next major leaked photo/video story becomes mainstream news, bringing unmeasurable pain to its victims.

4. The Resiliency of Piracy

Even as piracy began to touch more and more lives, there was also saw further evidence of just how resilient the problem really is.

Efforts to stamp out piracy were rampant this year and included shutting down sites, blocking sites in certain countries, tough new legislation in others, a push to reduce the search engine presence of infringing sites and even sustained attempts to target advertisers on sites engaged in piracy.

To be clear, these efforts have seen fruit. For example, FilesTube, one of the most popular search engines for illegal files, decided to change its business model and go legitimate.

Most prominently, The Pirate Bay was also shuttered following a raid in Sweden. Despite claims that the site was raid-proof, the site has been offline for over three weeks and it’s unclear the owners of it will ever bring it back

But while the closure of The Pirate Bay has a psychological impact, the practical one seems to be less impressive, with little to no drop of estimated pirate activity. To make matters more frustrating for content enforcers, some 400 clones of the site have emerged.

While it’s unlikely that any of these sites will have the populating and/or longevity of the original, the show just how vexing the problem of piracy really is.

However, the problem hasn’t been limited to just anti-piracy efforts. Recent attempts at changing the business model have also been futile at stopping piracy. As discussed above, “The Interview” was released online at the same time as theaters, yet piracy of it is still rampant, making up a sizable percentage of the viewing audience.

It seems nothing put a dent in piracy in 2014 and the desire for free stuff overcame all obstacles put in its way.

5. Rulings To Expand Copyright

Finally, even though copyright news always seems to have a certain amount of bizarreness to it, 2014 seemed to bring out the strange stories in droves. However, at least two of the more bizarre stories ended in rulings that could easily expand copyright in ways not previously expected.

First, in May, the U.S. Appeals Court for the Federal Circuit ruled that APIs can be copyrighted.

The ruling came as a shock to many as APIs are simple instructions that tell a computer program how to interact with a device. In this case, Google copied Oracle APIs so that its version of JAVA would be compatible with other applications written in the language.

Though Google won in the lower court, the appeals court overturned it. That ruling is currently on appeal to the Supreme Court, where there is a great deal of support for the court to hear the case.

In an even more surprising case, actress Cindy Lee Garcia received a ruling at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that ruled she, as an actor, had a copyright interest in her work and could order a film in which she appeared be removed from YouTube and other sites.

Garcia was an actor in the controversial short film “The Innocence of Muslims”, which was connected with riots after it appeared on YouTube. Garcia claimed that she was duped into appearing in the film and that she never signed away her rights. She sought to have the film pulled from Google after she received death threats but Google refused, prompting her to sue. The lower court sided with Google in the matter, saying her performance did not grant her a copyright interest, but the appeals court overturned that.

The 9th Circuit recently heard that case en banc, meaning before the entire panel of judges. The ruling on that is expected soon.

While it’s likely that one or both of these rulings will be overturned, right now the latest rulings have it that actors can hold copyright in their works and APIs can be copyrighted, two things many didn’t believe going into the year.

Of course, the biggest case in this area can’t be overturned and that’s Aereo, which was shuttered by a Supreme Court decision. Aereo had tried to be a TV streaming and DVR service for over-the-air broadcast television but was sued by the TV networks for infringement. Though Aereo won most of the early rulings, the Supreme Court wiped the slate clean and handed the broadcasters the victory they needed to close Aereo for good.

While not an expansion of copyright per se, it represents a broadcaster-friendly definition of public broadcast, one that could be used to attack other businesses and rulings. However, much of the effect of Aereo could be theoretically undone if the FCC changes the rules to make the definition of a cable company technologically neutral, which it is expected to do, Aereo won’t see the fruits of that as it is in bankruptcy and being carved up as I write this.

One ruling we didn’t get this year was an answer on that monkey selfie, so there’s no copyright expansion to animals, yet.

A Personal Note

For me personally, 2014 was definitely a year to remember. I spoke at back-to-back international confernces, the first was the European Medical Writers Association, which had a symposium in Budapest, Hungary in May and then, barely a month later, was the 6th International Plagiarism Conference in Newcastle, UK.

Domestically, in March I spoke at SXSW in Austin, TX and in October at the American Medical Writers Association in Columbus, OH.

All of these were great conferences that I was thrilled to be speaking at.

It was also a very good year for my business, CopyByte, which also saw a revamped website, and 2014 was also the biggest year traffic-wise to Plagiarism Today, with well over half a million visitors.

All in all, this was easily one of my best years ever and it would not have been possible without all of you. Thank you for reading and choosing this site to help you stay up to date on copyright, plagiarism and related news.

Bottom Line

Without a doubt, 2014 was a year to remember but 2015 is already shaping up to be an even more amazing year. Not only are we going to see the continuation of many of the stories above, but, as always, new stories are going to crop up and change the copyright landscape.

What are those stories? Well, in our next post I’ll gaze into my crystal ball and see what the future may hold (I’ll also see how well my crystal ball was working this time last year).

In the meantime, I hope that this post finds you well and that you are having a wonderful new year!

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