On Blog Plagiarism and Your Rights

Note: This particular entry contains rambly talk about law-ish stuff. I am not a member of a bar yet, and do not warrant that I am a lawyer in any professional sense. Do not construe any of the below as legal advice, ever. Go talk to a real lawyer if you are interested. All that said, I am a law school graduate and have strong opinions about the law, so buyer beware and all that nonsense.

This is where I briefly surface from thinking about the law and passing the bar exam to write you all a love letter about… law. This is VERY important for those of us that are bloggers, and for anyone else that publishes anything that is meaningful to them on the internet (or anywhere else, for that matter).

As someone who just completed a very difficult course of study, I am pretty proud of myself, and have very little sympathy for those who cheat, lie, or plagiarize to get through their schooling or everyday lives. That said, I’m also very interested in the legal implications for those people that plagiarize and get caught. If you’re in college, you get an F on the paper and probably the class. If you’re in Law School, your degree is in severe jeopardy – I know, I was plagiarized early in law school by someone in my class, and we were both treated as plagiarists until I could produce evidence that I was the plagiarizee and he was the plagiarizor – and you will likely get a letter forwarded from your school to any bar that you plan to sit for. I’ve heard of master’s degrees being wholly revoked, as late as 20 years after the fact, and supervising faculty being recommended for termination. In the workplace, journalists are regularly fired for plagiarism, and newspapers and other bodies often sue for copyright violations.

Why do I bring this up? Well, this site right here was “scraped” at some point over the last four months, by a blog I had never heard of (and I imagine most of you will not have heard of), and I discovered it a few days ago. It was not a Twins blog. It wasn’t even really a baseball blog. However, it lifted effectively my entire previews of the season for the Detroit Tigers and Chicago White Sox (among other posts) and re-posted them without attribution or permission. This is by definition “scraping,” which is web-speak for wholesale reproduction of copyrighted/original work.

So, let me proceed to tell you my story in the manner of a law school class. Just imagine the bolded questions being asked by an old, bearded, scary-as-hell professor who’s standing in front of a class that is just you… and your 129 closest friends. Then imagine he calls your name to answer the questions. All of them. Without looking at your notes or textbook.

Welcome to Georgetown Law. Hope you enjoy your stay.

Without further ado: my quick-and-dirty primer on plagiarism for the bloggers among us.

Okay, you’ve been plagiarized. Big freaking whoop. Shouldn’t you be grateful that people are reading your work and liking it enough to reproduce it?

Not hardly. There is a time and a place for feeling flattered, and it certainly isn’t at a time when your work is being appropriated by someone else. I hate to break it to you, but they couldn’t care less about you or what you wrote. They just think they can make a few extra pennies from ads or a few extra page-views out of your work. No thought at all is given to you.

But wait, Mr. Olson, you’re just a blogger. No one cares if your work is ripped off. Why do you?

First, not true. Bloggers are authors, and while very few of us have transformed our bloggy ways into a career path, many of us make a few dollars a month with text links or beer money from Google AdSense. We’re not traditional journalists in the traditional sense of the word, but what we write is still copyrighted, whether we register it or not.

That, and all bloggers feel an incredible sense of ownership of what they have written. I put about four-six hours into each of the season previews that was scraped, and I didn’t even have to do any fancy numbers work on them, like many bloggers do. Also, while I don’t plan to ever attempt to try to make money on this blog (tried that once, and it turned into a pain in the butt), I sure don’t want anyone else to make money off my work if I can’t.

All selfishness aside, though, I don’t have a big corporate logo at the top of this page. I don’t have the backing of an august organization with the reputation of the Boston Globe, or Slate, or Fox News (hah – I just implied Fox News had a reputation for something other than doody) behind me when I write, and if I did, that little poop joke might just have gotten me fired. But seriously, all bloggers like myself and many of the others in the Twins blogosphere, particularly the successful ones, have to offer is our integrity and our personal reputation on the subjects we write about. I don’t want my work to be re-posted on a page where it will appear beside huge “Get Free Viagra” and “Find a Sexxx Friend” ads. I may make poop jokes, but at least I’ll stand behind them. That’s the reason I don’t run ads anymore – I don’t want anyone to think I’m standing behind anything other than my own writing.

Okay, getting off topic here. In a real law school class, by now the professor would have interr-

But what about Fair Use, Mr. Olson? Doesn’t that sort of foul your argument?

Actually, no, it doesn’t. The idea behind fair use is that in order to properly comment on something first appearing somewhere else or to provide background for your work, sometimes you need to republish brief excerpts of those earlier works. Not whole articles, mind you, but reasonably short excerpts, always with credit. I follow the three paragraph rule: three paragraphs is presumptively Fair Use, so long as there are more than three paragraphs in the article (if not, use just a sentence or two, or just link).

Wholesale reproduction of articles or passages (especially without providing analysis or comment) is never acceptable without permission and credit. Don’t do it. You’ll get in trouble real fast.

Quick breakdown – to properly use the fair use exception to copyright law, here’s what you’ve gotta do: first, identify the source, including both the author (if listed) and the website, book, etc. that the quote came from; second, make sure that there is no outright prohibition on doing so (hint: never never never never quote the AP – quote the NY Times’ or WaPo’s republication of their stories. AP will send you a bill for $10-30 for use of the quote, along with a cease-and-desist letter); third, if it’s an online source, it’s common courtesy to provide a link, though it’s not required by Fair Use terms; fourth and finally, make sure that from reading your work you can tell what the quote is and what is your own work. That’s it! It’s easy, so you have no excuse for messing it up, ever again.

Alright, Mr. Olson, smartypants*, what do you do if your website gets scraped or plagiarized? *I make no representations that a law professor has ever uttered the word “smartypants.”

There are several things you should do. You have a choice, however, as to how to respond. First, you can send a measured, reasoned response, asking them to take it down or give you credit for your work. This can be accomplished by email, phone, comment on their blog, anything. Second, you can send a pissy and ranty email to their listed email address, and find out that it is owned by someone else entirely.*

*Sorry again, Mr. Richards, and thanks for understanding.

If you either don’t get a response or if you do get a response that refuses to comply with your requests, then it gets fun. If you do make a significant amount of money off your page, talk to a lawyer. They’ll usually give free consultations, if they think there’s money to be had. If not, then you can proceed with some stealth warfare.

First, determine whether they use an ad-placing service, like Google AdSense. If you can provide definitive proof (like a copy of the work in question, published on an earlier date) that your site was plagiarized or scraped by the holder of the AdSense account, Google will usually suspend or cancel the account. I recommend it, it worked in my case.

Second, try to determine who actually hosts their page. In the case of a non-blogger/wordpress site, plug their URL into this site, and it will tell you who their host is. Because they are violating copyright law, and doing it on the host’s servers, the host is usually pretty receptive to copyright complaints. If they do have a WordPress site, like the one in my case, life is easy: WordPress has a suspension/cancellation policy for violation of the terms of use, which prohibit copyright violations. The website that scraped me no longer exists as a result. I’m not clear on Blogger/Blogspot/tumblr’s rule’s on this point, but I imagine they do something similar.

Finally, if none of these works or you are feeling particularly vindictive, especially if you make your living from your page, contact a lawyer, who would be more than pleased to accept a small fee from you in exchange for sending a cease-and-desist letter, and possibly suing in the right case.

Do whatever makes you feel good. However, a few “do nots”:

  • Do not swear or threaten them. Not only is it counterproductive, it looks really bad if you do decide to go to court at a later date.
  • Do not threaten them. It’s important enough to mention twice.
  • Do not threaten them. And a third time.
  • Don’t overreact. If you send them a polite-yet-curt email asking them to knock it off, and they do, don’t go on and do the other stuff I listed above, or you may get yourself in some hot water.
  • Most of all, don’t write an 1900-word post on your blog about it. People might think that you’re a little self-centered. ;)

Okay, class is over. A few concluding non-law-related remarks -

  • My heartfelt thanks for the Facebook birthday wishes and congratulations on graduation. I really appreciate the camaraderie and friendship that so many of us
  • I am growing increasingly disenchanted with Twitter. I can’t even stomach being on during a game anymore. If you’re one of the people that is making my time less happy, knock it off, please. Criticism is helpful and good and all, but negativity for the sake of negativity and personal attacks get old. Really fast. I refer you to this for a better explanation of why.
  • Finally, if you’ve messaged me on facebook or twitter or sent me an email, I’m sorry for not getting back to you in a timely fashion. I’ll try to catch up this week, but studying for the bar is not conducive at all to keeping up with obligations.
  • New posts will hopefully return soon!
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