Prolific Plagiarists

By Laura Haight
A version of this post appeared as The Digital Maven in Upstate Business Journal, Nov. 9, 2017

For a dozen years or so, marketers and communicators have been telling businesses that "content is king." Create content and readers will come, your footprint will grow, your brand will gain recognition. 

That was all good advice, but the shift of readers becoming writers has also increased plagiarism. It's hard to find real numbers since plagiarism isn't really a crime so much as an offense. But the Pew Research Center surveyed university presidents in 2011 (goo.gl/vi1QrQ) and found plagiarism at its highest level in a decade with 89 percent citing the Internet as a major contributing factor. 

Today's plagiarism is not limited to academics. And it's possible your businesses content on social media, business networking sites, and even your company's blog, may have been cribbed.

Every day, there are 500 million new tweets created, multiple posts added to the 40 million active small business pages on Facebook, and two million new blog posts created. (goo.gl/i22jfz).

That's a significant amount of content and, if we're being honest, we want readers to pass it on: To share it, repost it, and retweet it. 

But somethings that have become prevalent on social media cross even the loosest of ethical lines. Take LinkedIn profiles, for example. 

Many writers, marketers and HR consultants make a living writing compelling LinkedIN profiles designed to grab the attention of potential clients or employers. But how can you stand out from the crowd when a bunch of other people have the exact same profile? Apparently it's getting to be an embarrassingly common thing for people to copy-and-paste elements – and sometimes whole profiles – of other LinkedIN users with the same general business background.

Copying and pasting someone else's words and passing them off as your own really is the textbook definition of plagiarism, but there are many more less clear-cut ways that the ownership and authorship of words and ideas gets lost in social media.

The concept of "engagement" has blurred the lines of authorship, and internet postings often fall into a blurry area called "common knowledge".

MIT defines common knowledge as "information that the average, educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up." While seemingly straightforward, that leaves a great deal open to interpretation. What does "average" mean? What constitutes an "educated reader"? Educated based on whose standard?

Then there's posting and reposting until the actual originator of an article, graphic, design, or idea, is obscured beyond recovery. In many cases, the more your content falls into the realm of "common knowledge", the more likely you are to lose your claim to it. 

That's what happened to Bayer's claim on the product trademark "aspirin". Developed by Bayer and trademarked in 1900, aspirin fell victim to what we now call – assuming we could pronouce it – genericization. People started to call any pain killer "aspirin". By 1921, the trademark could no longer be enforced and Bayer lost its sole right to use the name: aspirin. (goo.gl/1SBSgG)

The clamoring for content has given rise to several new trends and tools. One is the "listicle". Articles that focus on quick-hit lists like "5 things smart people do before breakfast", "3 foods you should never eat if you're dieting" (who hasn't clicked on that one?), or "10 things you do that make good employees quit." These articles are always unattributed and extremely general, and make fertile ground for plagiarizers to crib content. 

While researching a different article, I came across an example of this on LinkedIN's Pulse blogging platform. I Googled a topic and read one article, then moved on to the next one in the list. They were nearly identical. The second one written six months after the first one appears on the same platform. In fact, that led to this column. (And yes, I did notify the original author).

Blogging platforms like Pulse, Medium, and Ghost make plagiarism shockingly easy. Even the Q&A platform Quora is vulnerable, to the point that it has a specific policy to protect original ideas and material on the site.  (goo.gl/ngYf4c).

So what can you as a business communicator do to avoid unintentionally plagiarizing others as well as protecting your own intellectual property?

Attribute your facts. As one who grew up as a journalist before the Internet, I am in awe of how easy information is to find. Every written word can be Googled. If you find a great idea that dovetails with your business, share it. But attribute it fully and add a link to the original article.

Paraphrasing doesn't make it yours. Some pundits on this topic suggest that you paraphrase the creative ideas of others. It's a slippery slope. Although not as offensive, paraphrasing is still a violation. You need to say in context where the idea or concept originated. 

Vigorously protect your content. The Internet may have given rise to more ways to steal your words, but it also has facilitated more ways to check. With nearly every written word of the millions produced every day available to search engines, a few sentences, enclosed in quotes, searched in Google will find other articles using the same words. I searched for the proceeding paragraph and was relieved to get "no results".  If you find someone has taken your content and reposted as their own, contact them and ask them to take it down or to properly attribute it. There are probably few places where any kind of civil or legal action would be worth the effort, but sometimes just letting people know they are caught is enough. 

If you have copyrighted your blog or website and find your content has been plagiarized, you may be able to sue in federal court. Plagiarism is not a crime, but theft of intellectual property is. That's what a copyright protects, according to LegalZoom. 

Protecting your words and ideas, calling out the cribbers helps make the Internet a better place for all the writers, designers, and thought leaders who have now found an audience. 

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