Friday, March 16, 2007

Fighting Back

My brother and I were heading home from work earlier this week, and he was telling me about how one of his co-worker's blogs had been used as the source for a plagiarist's writings. From the way he described it, it sounded like a pretty bad case: Said plagiarist actually went as far as replicating every single entry, right down to the points where he/she shifted around a few words in a feeble attempt at "originality".

My brother was pretty incredulous about the entire discovery, and he asked me why anyone would want to do such a thing. I gave him the first few reasons I could think of: Maybe it was done for the revenue from any number of ad services. Maybe it was done for academic ends -- perhaps for a good grade or something of the kind. Or maybe it was simply because the person wanted to attract attention with a bunch of well-written posts. When you ask yourself why a plagiarist plagiarizes, you can literally come up with any number of reasons right then and there.

I'll admit, of course, that plagiarizing entire blogs is a relatively rare occurrence. You'll probably run into the issue here and there, yes, and they'll be mostly for things like recipes, quotations and thesis arguments. Copy an entire blog, though, and that's tantamount to sticking your name on a book that somebody else has written: It's blatantly offensive, it's incredibly obvious, and you can't claim ignorance anywhere down the line. Simply put, it's a situation where nobody can possibly find a way to defend your actions... least of all, yourself.

We soon got about to discussing what could be done about the matter. It's not as though there's a regulatory body for blogs, I mean, and we haven't quite gotten a presence in international courts just yet. (Don't get me wrong, of course -- we do have a place in copyright law, and can argue our cases very effectively.) Solutions to plagiarist efforts tend to involve taking matters into one's own hands more often than not nowadays, though.

At that point, I threw him the two options that were sitting at the forefront of my mind. For simplicity's sake, I referred to them as the "subtle method" and the "noisy method", and they were based on reactions that I'd observed over the past couple of years.

The "subtle method", I explained, involved direct contact with the offender's blogging service (and possibly law enforcement, depending on the victim's mood). The vast majority of blogging services frown upon plagiarism: No one in their right mind patronizes a portal that condones this kind of theft, after all. Reporting a plagiarist to his own blogging service should -- under the right circumstances -- spark an immediate investigation. Any targeted offender is likely to wake up one day to find his "work" completely gone -- or worse, tagged and archived as evidence for use in litigation.

And in case anyone out there is thinking that these circumstances are unlikely: Have a good look at those terms of service that you signed for your service or hosting provider. There's a good chance that there's a fine-print clause there that allows them to shut sites down in this manner.

The primary benefit of the "subtle method", of course, is that you go straight to the source. This allows an authority to witness the offense for themselves, determine the extent of the damage to your reputation (as well as theirs), and effectively cut the plagiarist from its roster of sites. This is not to say that this method doesn't have a catch, though: It's also possible that your service provider might simply delete all files associated with the offender, destroying any possible evidence of the person's crime and/or identity. It remains up in the air as to whether or not you have the right to request that they retain a copy of the site in question, too -- they only have so much server space, after all.

I figure that most people probably go for the "noisy method", to be honest. This involves putting up a post on your own blog that summarizes the offense and warns people against visiting the plagiarist's site (without providing any clickable links there, of course). If the plagiarist is the sort who continues to read your blog, then he'll realize that you've found out about his activities without your needing to confront him directly. At that point, only the most fearless of people would go as far as to actually plagiarize your accusation on plagiarism; In any event, you'd have the advantage of momentum then.

The "noisy method" doesn't stop there, though: In addition to putting up a blog post on the matter, it is best to contact as many people as possible and request for links to your post. This will not only spread word throughout your local blogging network, but it will also increase the page rank of that post in any number of search engines. That way, anyone who actively looks for your writings will find your disclaimer first.

The catch with the "noisy method" is that you'd have no guarantee of resolving the issue. A patient plagiarist will simply ignore your efforts and wait until the uproar dies down. You can't shame a person into retreat if that person holds no remorse for his or her actions, after all. This doesn't detract from your primary benefit, though: Using the "noisy method" will at least leave your constituents informed of the offender's presence. From there, however, it could become a question of how far you're willing to tolerate it.

There was also the possibility of contacting the plagiarist directly via e-mail, I explained, but I felt that this would accomplish nothing beyond scaring him or her into deleting the offending site and covering their tracks. The option is still there if you're looking for a quick and easy solution, but it doesn't really discourage the person from simply doing this to someone else. Worse yet, you might run into an unrepentant plagiarist who will end up either ignoring you or stalking you. (This is your own personal e-mail address you're using, right?)

At that point, I raised the fact that one had a few preventives against plagiarism. This blog, for example, posts a personal disclaimer once every month, and maintains a Creative Commons License on top of that. What these do is that they place a statement on the blog that actively tells readers that they can't steal anything from it without your knowledge and support. I like to think that this invalidates the standard defense of many plagiarists -- the one that says that internet sites (blogs included) constitute free information for their own advantage. I mean, it's a little difficult to claim that you can conveniently grab stuff from a web site when that web site clearly states that you can't.

My brother asked if anyone's stolen any of my writings from me yet. I told him that I didn't know of any such incident, as far as I figured. I thought that every writer was bound to run into such a problem at some time, though.

"That's because you have a really obvious writing style," he said.

"I do?"

"Yeah. It would stick out like a sore thumb if anybody copied it."


In any event, I eventually told him, the measures were there. The last thing I wanted to do after all, was run out of time to write just because I was too busy setting up all the security screens.


kat said...

The thought of someone getting what I wrote did occur to me, several times before, in fact. I figured no one would be interested in what I write, but then you'll never know. We take precautions against these kinds of situations, but somehow it still happens. I hope that it won't happen to any of us though.

This is also prevalent in the art community. I've recently gone through a watermarking spree on all the drawings I've done and posted online. I don't know how effective this is, but hey, anything to protect what's mine.

Sean said...

Kat: Yes, it's a lot easier to steal art than it is to steal writing. On the other hand, it's also a lot easier to place watermarks on artwork than it is to make writing style readily identifiable. Art and writing are so close nowadays that I expect them to have long conversations at family reunions. :)

Ida said...

Heh, that's cute. I mean the thing you said about art and writing being close and having long conversations. I wonder what they'd talk about. I'd probably attend that reunion just to eavesdrop. :P

Sean said...

Ida: I don't know, to be honest... but I'm pretty sure that it would involve Neil Gaiman in some shape and/or form. :)

Ailee Through the Looking Glass said...

I have to agree with your brother that you have a very distinct writing style. However, there IS one writer that reminded me of you when I first started reading his book: Dave Eggers, who wrote A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. :) In any case, like your brother, I don't think you'll have much trouble with people attempting to steal your work.

Then again, one shouldn't underestimate the audacity (and sheer stupidity) of human beings...

Sean said...

Ailee: I'm going to have a look at this "Dave Eggers" person, then. :)