The Plagiarism Problem: Is Someone Stealing Your Content? An Interview With Jonathan Bailey

The Plagiarism Problem: Is Someone Stealing Your Content? An Interview With Jonathan Bailey
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Liberal borrowing and outright theft are huge problems for content creators. We spend time, money and brainpower coming up with the best content we can and few things are as frustrating as finding huge chunks of that content scraped, duplicated and otherwise pilfered.

Jonathan Bailey knows all about plagiarism and copyright infringement on the web. He’s had his own struggles with it – and has been helping people fight it for nearly a decade.

His blog Plagiarism Today is dedicated to keeping people informed of the latest news and issues in plagiarism and his company CopyByte was founded specifically to help people deal with this vexing and thorny issue.

He also hosts a podcast called Copyright 2.0 with Patrick O’Keefe… you might remember him from one of our previous interviews. They make a great team and I’ve learned a lot of interesting (and aggravating) things from them.

Jonathan was kind enough to take time to answer some questions for me about what plagiarism is so that I could share this important information with you. Whether you’re a blogger, writer or business owner, you’re bound to run into an unscrupulous person who will try to pass of your content as his (or her) own.

Jonathan’s insights are a wake-up call that should get you thinking about how you can protect and defend yourself against this digital demon.

Interview With Jonathan Bailey

Question: Thanks for taking time to answer my questions, Jonathan. I noticed on your website it says that you got into the business of fighting plagiarism after a personal experience with it. Could you tell me what happened that inspired you (so to speak)?

Back in 2000, I had a website where I published literature I had written including short stories, poetry and essays. It was mostly mediocre stuff but I enjoyed it.

One day I was chatting with some of my readers and someone asked if I ran another site. At that time, I didn’t. He then linked me to a site that had almost everything I had posted, nearly 5 years’ worth of stuff, all plagiarized under someone else’s name.

I was able to deal with the case but quickly realized that if he was able to do it there might be others, and after a few searches, quickly learned there were hundreds out there.

In the end, I found myself shutting down some 700 plagiarists of my literature before making the site inactive. It was from that experience that I ended up launching Plagiarism Today.

Question: What is plagiarism? Is there a fine line or a pretty substantial one between using someone’s work fairly and plagiarizing?

Plagiarism is generally considered to be using the words, ideas or works of another without attribution, taking credit for them yourself. While there’s obviously a lot of overlap between plagiarism and copyright, plagiarism is more of an ethical issue where copyright deals more with the act of copying.

That being said, there’s always a gray area as to when to cite something and how to properly cite it. For example, we tend not to expect citations on common knowledge but we do expect citations when using words or images form someone else.

It can be difficult, especially with new media where the rules of citation aren’t particularly set, but generally it’s better to over-cite than to under-cite.

Question: How big is the problem of plagiarism on the web?

When it comes to the web, piracy gets the lion’s share of the media attention because it happens to big companies, is widespread and is the subject of a lot of lawsuits.

Plagiarism is very widespread too. If my small site can attract hundreds of plagiarists, it’s a more common problem than most people realize. However, it doesn’t get a lot of attention.

Question: What are some of the most common examples of plagiarism on the web?

Probably the most common examples involve social networking/news/forum sites where users will post content they claim to be original but is actually copied from blogs, news sites or elsewhere.

However, business plagiarism is becoming a bigger problem as well. These days, anyone can start up a “business” online by building a website, and the easiest way to fill your pages with text is to just copy it all from a competitor. Surprisingly common, especially in certain fields.

Question: Do you have a sense of how this problem affects ranking in Google, with issues like duplicate content?

Google is a crucial element of this. Everyone wants to rank well in the search results but Google, wanting to deliver the best results, doesn’t want the top links to all be largely the same. So, if Google sees too much similarity between two pages, one gets bumped down.

Usually, Google does a pretty good job in picking out the plagiarist but it’s not perfect and this can create a major SEO problem.

There’s also the issue that Google sometimes penalizes sites that have their content spread too widely or in unethical ways, which widespread plagiarism can appear to be.

No matter what, having plagiarized copies of your content out there is bad for SEO.

Question: What can the average person do to protect against plagiarism?

There isn’t much that you can do to prevent plagiarism, especially of text. I encourage people to watermark their images, but barriers put up to stop plagiarism harm legitimate users as well.

Instead, it’s wisest to focus on detection. The best thing to do is start out by searching for key phrases in some of your content. Just pick out a string of 6-9 unique words, put quotes around it and see what Google finds. You can also use tools such as Copyscape to help automate the process. Both are free for basic searches.

Question: Do you have any examples of “worst cases” you’ve seen?

I’ve seen many sites with 100s of items plagiarized by one or more sources. Sometimes these are spam blogs that lift the content automatically, but other times they were clearly built by hand, with someone actually copying and pasting everything.

On the SEO front, I’ve seen at least two sites that were more or less completely dropped from Google because of plagiarist sites and I routinely see companies that lose search engine ranking (at least temporarily) due to plagiarism.

For some companies, going from 2-3 in a key Google search term can mean tens of thousands of dollars in lost revenue. So even small blips can create big problems.

Question: How about something seemingly benign that the average person might be doing right now, thinking they’re not doing anything wrong, that is considered otherwise?

The two most common things are using Google Image Search to find photos to use on your site and copying and pasting whole works when sharing them with social networking sites and and other community sites.

Basically, when you share content, it’s better to link than it is to copy and, when it comes to images, it’s best to find a good stock photo service, like Morguefile and obtain your images from there.

Question: Is there any particular business, industry or group that’s more susceptible to being plagiarized?

 Typically, it’s small businesses that are the most vulnerable.

First, there tend to be more competitors in a small-business dominated field and the barriers to entry are lower. Second, small businesses don’t always have the expertise or the resources to create their own site so they often wind up copying content from elsewhere. Finally, a small business just doesn’t have the same level of trust with Google that a large one has, meaning that it can be more easily unseated in the rankings.

Basically, GM isn’t likely to be plagiarized by Ford or any other competitor. But even if they were, the damage would be minimal. However, your car mechanic’s site may be plagiarized by mechanics all over the country and given their position with the search engines, it could be devastating.

Question: What’s does copyright mean?

Copyright, most broadly, is a set of exclusive rights that are given to the creator of a copyrighted work. Those rights include the ability to copy the work, make derivative works based upon it and publicly display/perform the work. The creator can then either sell or license those rights out.

Copyright protects any work of “creative authorship” that’s fixed into a tangible medium of expression. This includes literature, photography, artwork, music, movies, software and the list goes on.

Question: Do we need that little © to have any copyright protection?

Not since the Copyright Act of 1976. Neither the copyright symbol, nor any other formality, is required for copyright protection. Though you will need to register the work with the U.S. Copyright Office before filing suit (and timely registration is needed for full protection), no symbol has to be displayed at all.

That being said, displaying it doesn’t really cost anything and many people still believe that anything without it is public domain, so it’s probably a good idea to include it.

Question: I know on the web many people assume everything is available and “free”. What are some common things people do that could be considered infringement without that person realizing it?

Basically, if it’s on the Internet, it’s best to assume that it’s copyright protected and to not use it without permission. You can get permission many ways, including through open licenses (such as Creative Commons) or by simply asking. You can also license content for legal use through stock photo sites, article sites and elsewhere so long as you follow the terms on the site.

Question: What are some of the more egregious myths about plagiarism and copyright infringement? (I can pick out at least one in the form of a recent Facebook status update!)

There are too many to choose, ranging from the notion that if it doesn’t have the copyright symbol it’s not copyrighted to anything on the Web is in the “public domain” so it’s free to use.

However, one of the more common ones that I see is that many feel you can declare almost any use a “fair use”. Fair use is actually a fairly narrow exemption to copyright law and most of what people claim to be fair is actually an infringement, especially on YouTube.

Also, in light of recent events on Facebook and Instagram, it’s worth noting that you can’t undo a terms of service, which is basically a contract, with a Facebook post or a photo. “Declaring” copyright in that way doesn’t help anything.

Question: How do you help people deal with these issues?

With my website and consulting practice, I try to focus on the nuts and bolts of copyright enforcement, and to help people understand what the law says and what it means in the practical world.

The goal is to help people actually benefit from their copyright enforcement efforts rather than getting bogged down in a seemingly endless drudge. This means focusing on prevention when possible and then working to deal with important infringements quickly and effectively.

Question: How successful have you been combating these issues?

It depends on your barometer for success. If you say that every infringement in the world must be wiped out to be a success, then no one can ever achieve it, regardless of what some promise.

However, if you measure success by saying that you reduce infringement enough to allow for good SEO, increased sales or decreased piracy, than I have been very successful with myself and many clients.

The goal is never to eliminate infringement, that is like saying you want to eliminate crime or disease, but you can greatly reduce the prevalence and impact of infringement and that has always been my goal.

I don’t know about you but I was pretty paranoid after reading some of this stuff! It’s definitely a concern, and even more so for us small biz people who, as Jonathan said, are often the most susceptible but don’t necessarily have the resources or knowledge to fight it.

I hope you’ll take some time to work “fight plagiarism” into your marketing plan, even if you only spend a few moments each month Googling your content to make sure you’re the only one using it. Put Jonathan’s blog at Plagiarism Today on your list of must-reads so you can be informed of current issues.

And if you do run into a problem, visit Jonathan at CopyByte to find out how he can help you save your content.

 

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Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn Rivera

Carol Lynn is a content creator and marketer who has been in the business of digital marketing since 1999. Along with her husband and business partner Ralph, she owns and operates both {Web.Search.Social}, a consulting and marketing services business, and Rahvalor Interactive, a web and creative services production studio. On any given day Carol Lynn will wear the hat of project manager, consultant, social media manager and content marketer. Her true passion is writing, whether it’s web content, a blog post, email campaign or social status update. When she's not writing for customers, {Web.Search.Social}, or her own blog, she's planning her early retirement to Barcelona as a famous and wealthy novelist.
Carol Lynn Rivera
Carol Lynn Rivera
  • http://www.theworld4realz.com/ Andi-Roo

    A friend of mine found someone was stealing his material, my material, several other friends’ material, and likely more than that. Together we were able to shut it down, but I’m sure that was only one in a case of many more we DON’T stumble across. I think it’s probably safe to assume it’s not a matter of “if” your material will be taken without permission, but “when”. Thanks for providing a resource to which we can turn! I will be sure to pass this on! :)

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I think you’re right, Andi. Not if but what and when. As if we don’t have enough to think about on a regular day! It’s one of those things I think to myself: wow, I really need to check to see if my content is out there somewhere. Right after I do these other 4 million things… But yeah, this freaked me out a little and I have actually known people who thought copying someone else’s content for their site was just fine. It said what they needed it to say, right? Ugh!

  • http://alanjenkin.com/myblog Alan Jenkin

    I was completely unaware of the prevalence of plagiarism until I read this. I know I use information from other articles in my posts, but unless it’s something I have rewritten completely assing my own experience I always quote the source and give a link to it.

    I must admit, though, to being guilty of using Google images. Unless they have a watermark or other identifying copyright statement I had assumed they were available for anyone to use.

    Thanks for clarifying this matter for e.

    Alan

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I used Google images too, before I knew any better. I think that can be a big problem because a lot of times people don’t think of it as stealing. Nowadays there’s a lot more attention given to it, with sites like Pinterest and the issue of copyright. I think people who take whole posts or entire web pages and use the content are worse because I’m pretty sure they know they’re doing something wrong. It’s important for even the smallest of businesses to pay attention and protect themselves.

  • http://twitter.com/SylvianeNuccio Sylviane Nuccio

    Thank you for introducing Jonathan Baily to us, Carol. I’ve been victim of plagiarism several times that I know of and probably more times that I don’t.

    Just last week I was shocked that someone created two sites with my post about Life Coaching. Yes it had my links below, but nonetheless I didn’t like this. However, I was too busy, too tired and too lazy to report it, and some people told me not too worry too much about it since my links were there.

    Reading this interview I see how much plagiarism is an issue, and frankly didn’t realized that it was to that extent.

    Thank you so much for this valuable interview and will share :)

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I think it’s important that we take action, Sylviane, otherwise people will continue to do it without repercussions. And then there will be no reason for them to stop. I wouldn’t want my site rankings or credibility damaged by other people who are using my content. Fortunately Google has been paying more attention so I hope they’ll be able to see the difference between the original and the “fake”. But it’s still a lot of work for us!

  • malika bourne

    Thank you. this is the perfect article/ interveiw to pass on. No, I won’t plagerize it. but I will get it a great review and pass on the link as a must read. Have to visti the liks give, yet.

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Thanks, Malika :) I bet a lot of people have their content scraped or stolen without knowing it. The more people know about the possibility, the better they can protect themselves!

  • http://www.mayura4ever.com/ Mayura De Silva

    Hi Carol,

    Gosh… 5 years of content?

    I love the interview and there were some doubts I had such as Plagiarism vs Copyright. Very helpful information :)

    I think people are less aware of these sometimes though they find duplicate content as they were copied by someone else. It’s true we can’t wipe out all and be the most unique resource on the web with no duplications around.

    I had to fight with such and gladly was able to take down some blogs that used to copy multiple posts of mine with the help of Google as they were on free blogging platforms. Google offer that service and when we report such sites, Google degrade the search rankings for that blogs or websites too. If multiple complaints were there, probably they will remove from search results. Anyway it’s for anyone who wanna take action and depends on their choice.

    CopyScape and Google were to rescue me there but I don’t check for ‘em all the time though :)

    However as I believe, it will never end and if we keep trying to sue every others, we might be out of our track instead :) I know, we need to take action when we can and also need to provide more value without being discouraged, no Carol? :)

    They, the brainless folks, just do copy and paste. But we can build the competitive advantage over time and acheive the goals :)

    Cheers…

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I think Google is pretty good about taking down the bad sites, Mayura. They’ve done a lot recently to try to prevent this problem. part of our challenge is figuring out when there’s a problem in the first place. It’s tough to stay on top of it.

      You’re right, we can’t run around suing everyone. That would be too much time and money. So we have to be vigilant and then take action when we see something wrong.

      I hope we do prevail! Some people will always be, as you say “brainless” (good word choice!) but we’re the value creators.

  • Donna Merrill

    OMG Carol,

    Thank you so much for having Jonathan as your guest on this topic! This is an eye opener for me. I had one of my video’s sniped a few months ago. I see myself on Google advertising some company. This is when I started watermarking my videos. I did go through the process of reporting it to Google and that site was shut down in a few hours.
    Images was another surprise for me. Since Google got picky about the rights to images, I have been using my own pictures. I’ve seen them around, but the good thing is that when someone presses the image, it goes to my blog. I’m still confused about that one.
    This is a big eye opener for me and I thank you Jonathan for explaining the many ways people can swipe our content.
    Donna Merrill

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      It’s annoying but it can also be bad for our businesses. I definitely have to start paying more attention to this myself. If people are using your photos and the photos are linking to your blog, that could be bad for you too… what they are probably doing is linking to the photo on your blog instead of uploading it to theirs. Either way is stealing… but by linking to your blog, they’re using YOUR resources, so whenever someone goes to THEIR blog, yours has to do the work to serve up the image. That could be bad for your site speed and really drag you down. I would check that out for sure.

  • http://twitter.com/BarbaraCharles Barbara Charles

    What an eye opener. Great article and very informative. Definitely needed to understand more about this problem. So glad you had Jonathan give us the low-down. I know it’s something I don’t think much about except for pictures. I learned not to use Google pics a while ago but I never thought people took other’s people’s actually content and posted it to their sites. Amazing! Well, I’ve learned a great deal so thank you for that and giving us a contact that can help us just in case. Thanks so much.

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      It’s definitely worth thinking about, especially since Google will penalize duplicate content and it’s possible to get on the wrong side of that because of someone else’s bad behavior. We usually watermark out pics here, with just a url so if they do get “borrowed” hopefully our url goes with it!

  • Adrienne

    Thank you for this interview Carol and I’m definitely going to be sharing this post with everyone. I know this is an ongoing issue for a lot of people and I’ve know too many people who have had their entire sites copied. Why would anyone go to that trouble knowing that they’re going to get caught and eventually shut down.

    I appreciate though you sharing all the ins and outs of what’s legit and what’s not. I remember learning early on that you can share other people’s content as long as you give them credit for it being theirs. I mean that’s just the right thing to do anyway.

    ~Adrienne

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      I know people who have had trouble with this too, Adrienne. The truth is, a lot of people will never notice. They don’t even imagine that someone could be copying their whole site so they don’t pay attention. Hopefully if we stay on top of things it will help keep this kind of stuff down. or at least we should be protecting ourselves!

  • http://www.nurturingcreativity.net/ Denise Urena

    I know there is little original ideas these days, but I read a post this morning that was outlined so exactly the same as a popular one I wrote a few months back. Almost identical headings and touches on the same key points, in the same order, it was eerie. I know that’s not straight plagiarism but it makes me wonder if people take people’s articles, change a few words and publish it as their own.

  • http://twitter.com/DebbieDoglady Debbie Doglady

    That’s terrible for people to steal content and entire sites and pass them off as their own. Do they really have that much to gain by doing it? Just don’t understand it. I was reading another article not long ago that mentioned a site called “Copyscape Plagiarism Checker” (copyscape.com). You enter the URL of your site and it searches for duplicate content. Might be worth a try.

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Hi Debbie,

      The problem is that people are lazy! They don’t want to be bothered to spend time writing their own copy – or they don’t want to spend money to hire someone to do it – so they figure “this is close enough” and copy it. Copyscape is a good place to start.

      And definitely using images is a lot more problematic because it’s so easy to find images in a search and we figure it’s perfectly fine to use them. I hope more people will realize that using photos isn’t acceptable unless they’re specified as Creative Commons or something like that (and even then, they require attribution).

      Thanks for sharing your comments!

  • http://twitter.com/WFHConcepts Corina Ramos

    Hello Carol,

    Thanks so much for sharing this information. I don’t know how the people who can do this sleep at night. No integrity whatsoever.

    Your interview with Jonathan really helped us define what plagiarism by the examples he shared.

    You’ve also inclined me to add the copyright symbol for the added protection. This post is definitely worth bookmarking in case I ever need it, which I hope I never don’t.

    Hope all is well with you. Enjoy the rest of the week.

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      You got that right, Corina, but sadly there will always be people who are unethical. So it pays to take extra steps to protect ourselves. We have to keep an eye on our content and make sure it isn’t used in unintended ways. Thanks for stopping by!

  • http://twitter.com/write_clever Sue Neal

    Hi Carol,

    A fascinating, if worrying, article – I was only discussing this issue with Mayura the other day. It’s rather disheartening that so little can be done to prevent people copying your content in the first place – detection seems like shutting the door after the horse has bolted and I imagine it’s no easy matter to resolve the issue even if you do discover your content’s been stolen.

    I notice Denise’s comment below, too, which I think is really about content ‘spinning’ – I wonder what your views are on that? I think it’s very close to plagiarism – people who do that are effectively just stealing someone else’s ideas and slightly re-wording them. Not much we can do about that, I guess.

    Thanks for bringing this important issue to our attention,

    Sue

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      That’s a great question, Sue. I’m not sure what the answer is but I imagine there is a fine line between borrowing someone’s ideas generally, and wholesale copying of large chunks of writing. I don’t think that it has to be copied 100% for it to be plagiarism. If you can prove that there are whole sentences or paragraphs taken from your work then I would consider that plagiarism. Sometimes people reprint articles, but with permission and a link back to the source – but that should be done WITH permission. I would err on the side of caution. If you notice that your content is being spun in a way that pieces are being used even if the whole is not, I would report them anyway.

      It is too bad there isn’t much to be done, but staying on top of it is a good idea. The onus does fall on us as the content creators.

  • Jen

    Hi Carol,

    Thank you for publishing your interview. I had no idea this was such a prevalent problem. I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that people would do such a thing. Of course, it will also make me very aware of everything I put out there.

    I would like to share this (your) blog post, if you don’t mind?

    Thank you for sharing,

    Jen :)

    • http://twitter.com/CarolLynnRivera Carol Lynn Rivera

      Hi Jen, it’s true, you don’t really think it’s the kind of thing that could happen to **you**. But there are plenty of unscrupulous people and probably even a bunch who don’t think anything of it and just “borrow” our stuff. Yes, please do share! I hope it helps people become aware and take steps to protect themselves.