How do I cope with an ex-boss's plagiarism?
June 21, 2014 2:04 PM   Subscribe

I write product descriptions for a small online retailler. One of our directors left, joined a competitor, and promptly used all my product descriptions on this new site. I'm fuming, but my boss says to let it slide because we're "playing the long game". How do I cope?

I take a lot of pride in the product descriptions I write, I take the time to research it and write down as much detail as I can. This means I put a lot of time in, as we're in an industry where 90% of the products have next to no descriptions, or ones that are very badly translated into English.

This particular ex-director was very trying to work for, as he was responsible for the purchasing and pricing of these products, and would require even more detailed descriptions of the products to ensure that they sold at the rate he wanted them to. And now he's taken all that hard work, and applied to another site.

I'm infuriated. And I don't understand why my current boss is refusing to take action. It's been months since I first noticed what the ex-director had done, but we've done nothing, because, as I was told, "we're playing the long game".

No, I don't know what that means either. And I pointed out page ranking and potential DCMA takedowns (despite the fact that we're in the UK) and customer confusion and all that, and my boss still doesn't want to do anything.

So since we're not going to do anything, I need coping strategies. I know I shouldn't care this much, but it's my work. I would spend weeks trying to get these stupid products into a place where everyone understood what they were and what they could be used for, and now to just have all that work considered not worth fighting for...

So how do I cope?

(And, yes, already looking for a new job. Been looking for a new job for awhile.)
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (13 answers total)
I work in an academic environment, and I spent a couple of years drafting reports for committees and the Faculty Senate. Invariably, people would mess up my clear ideas and elegant prose. It bugged me until I realized that it wasn't my prose. As committee work, it was the property/product of the committee or whatever, and what happened to it afterward wasn't my issue.

You wrote those product descriptions for your company. The slight is against the company, not you. Your boss doesn't want to make a deal about it, so let it go.

That's how I deal with materials produced for work.
posted by GenjiandProust at 2:11 PM on June 21, 2014 [21 favorites]

No matter what, this is work product, it's not YOUR'S, its your COMPANY'S. In the grand scheme of things what you did was useful to your company and you were paid for it. If the company doesn't want to spend the money or time or PR capital to fight it, that's a business decision.

You are not the Shakespeare of the Gazingus Pin Catalog. Even if you were, it's fucking product descriptions!

Shrug and smile to yourself, and move on.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 2:13 PM on June 21, 2014 [9 favorites]

Send in your resume to the old boss' new company and include on your cover letter that, after viewing their site, you realized that they were a clear fan of your work, as it is used verbatim on the following products (list the products).

No, you don't want to work for the same sleaze bag. But how much fun would it be if they did the right thing and fired him and then gave you his job?
posted by myselfasme at 2:19 PM on June 21, 2014 [12 favorites]

"The long game" could very well include the work that you did, so I would hold tight. This person may have stolen more than just your product descriptions, and that's what your current boss is holding on to. Even if not, pretend that you're allowing him to keep those product descriptions online because it somehow undermines him and will lead to his destruction, because that might make you feel better on some level.
posted by xingcat at 2:55 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I know I shouldn't care this much, but it's my work.

I know this is close to piling on, but... no it isn't your work. It belongs to the company. That is the first and sole thing you need to get past if you want any chance of getting past this. You don't own the company, so you don't own the work you were paid to do by it. That's pretty much it in a nutshell.
posted by Brockles at 2:59 PM on June 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I would be annoyed, in your circumstances, but once you have expressed your concerns to your management chain and they have determined that they do not wish to take action (at this time -- you don't know what they might be planning, actually) that would be the end of it for me.

Except.. I would have some low level of concern that situation might someday boomerang and I would want to be protected against that. If I were in this situation I might approach my manager and say
"I know we've discussed Former Director McMimic copying my work product and taking it with him to his new company, and I understand you do not wish to make an issue of it at this time.

But can we please document that he copied from me, and not vice-versa? If his new employers don't realize that he did this, at some point I might be accused of copying from them. Of course *you* know what really happened, and *I* know what really happened, but by then you might have won the lottery and retired to your own private island and it would be my word against his. I would feel more protected if this was documented somewhere in case accusations are leveled in the future."
posted by Nerd of the North at 3:26 PM on June 21, 2014 [18 favorites]

Ouch. I've been there. You are allowed to be mad about this.

Yes, it is technically work for hire, and thus the property of your employer. But it is also your work, in that it is something you created, and not insignificantly, it's something you might want to use as a work sample in the future.

Of course, you don't want to tell your employer you're concerned because you might need it for job hunting, but it is a legitimate concern. One thing I do, just in case, is that I keep working copies of writing I've done that I might want to use as a writing sample at some point. It's not ironclad, of course, but I think it'd lend a little credibility if something I wrote for a client also showed up at another site and the question of who is the plagiarizer and who is the plagiaree arose. The only time anything really came to a head for me, it was a very bizarre circumstance, nobody questioned my authorship, and the plagiarist got permanently disqualified for employment at one of the biggest technical employers in the area. And as long as you have a consistent body of work, it's likely that it would play out pretty well for you as well.

That said, this stuff about playing the long game makes it sound as though something is going to go down.

Cling to that hope, and feel secure in the knowledge that this guy is a crappy thieving jerk who at some level knows he sucks.
posted by ernielundquist at 3:34 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

It sucks, but it's a fact of life.

When I was a staffer at magazines, I got my stuff plagiarized regularly. Several times a year, in fact, often by major outlets: BBC, The Independent, Salon... on and on.

Only once do I recall the magazine complaining.

As in your case, I was a staffer, and therefore didn't have *my* copyrights violated; it was the *company* which had a grievance. And because they didn't see fit to pursue the grievance, there was nothing more I could do. I told my editors, and when they decided not to do anything, that's where it ended.

It's galling, it's frustrating, but that's the way it is.
posted by cgs06 at 5:03 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

To protect yourself, do you have it in writing (even just emails) between you and Boss that your company is aware of ex-Director's misuse of the descriptions? If not, GET it in writing, so you can't be blamed down the road for the theft.

After that, drop it. If you keep harping on it, you'll just irritate Boss, who has repeatitively told you he's taking care of it with "the long game". I'm not sure what that means either, but HE apparently means he's handling it, even if you're not being kept in the loop.
posted by easily confused at 5:07 PM on June 21, 2014

It can take a lot of effort to "go after" somebody. Either your company has decided it's not worth the time/money/effort or the person in question stole more than just your things and they need to have all their bases covered before going after this person. You don't know if legal is involved. There could be a resolution. Or there may not be. Be angry but then move past it. It's the cost of working with other people. You'll be able to view this more objectively when your pure emotion settles down a bit.
posted by Aranquis at 5:45 PM on June 21, 2014

If you have proof that your company created the content first, you could explain to your boss the risks of Google penalties and so on and then simply file DMCA take-down requests for all the pages.
posted by Chaussette and the Pussy Cats at 6:17 PM on June 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Nerd of the north has a good point in the documenting.

But make that about you wanting to protect the company. Or at least couch it as asking the legal team if this is something to worry about.

Otherwise, as for "how to cope" - I'd be flattered, in a weird way, that he considered your work good enough TO steal.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:47 AM on June 22, 2014

I don't understand why my current boss is refusing to take action.

Is that even your current boss's decision to make? If the company has a legal department, it might not be in her hands at all. Or is part of your concern that your boss isn't reporting the plagiarism to her bosses?

If the latter, here's a possible suggestion about how to document the plagiarism without appearing to be a troublemaker to your boss: Go ahead and compile all the documentation you can about when you wrote, say, a dozen of the descriptions (emails with complete headers, dated files, screenshots of the offending web pages, etc). Send it to your boss with the following note, and save a copy at home to protect yourself later:

"Hi, boss. Re: our conversation about X's plagiarism of our product descriptions, I don't know if this will be helpful but thought I'd forward you some of the evidence I have in case it's useful. I've included documentation for a dozen products where the descriptions our competitor is using were created by us on [X dates]. Let me know if there's anything else I can do to help. What a horrible thing for X to do!"

Couching it as "I'm so ignorant but here's my attempt to help" might make it go down better. If you think your boss's bosses aren't aware of the situation, you can forward it to the legal department with "figured you're already aware of this but thought I'd pass it along."
posted by mediareport at 10:10 AM on June 22, 2014

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