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

By January 25, 2013 Interviews
The Plagiarism Problem: Is Someone Stealing Your Content? An Interview With Jonathan Bailey

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.