How to deal with copyright infringement and plagiarism?
March 11, 2015 3:16 PM   Subscribe

I run a website that is niche and more getting well known in it's small circle of enthusiasts. Not big, but around 10,000 visitors a month. Enough that I'm always surprised at the number of people who know the site. One thing I've noticed as popularity has grown, so has the lifting of content. I don't know how I should deal with it; if at all.

This is not the first time it's happened. I never pursued that one because there was some back story, specifically that the infringing party and I had strong personality disagreements, and I think he did it with the intent of getting a rise out of me. (Whether inaction was the right thing, I don't know.)

My website is getting some notice. And with that, some bad behavior. People have occasionally copied my writing, and claimed it was there own. People have copied using spinners, and have copied just because. Images also seem to be popular to lift. Some are mine, many are other people's images I use with permission. And when those get lifted, I also feel some sense of responsibility as those photographers were kind enough to give me access, only to have those images be exposed to the risk of unauthorized distribution.

I'm struggling with how to handle it. On the one hand "imitation is the sincerest form for flattery." On the other hand, it's kind of shitty as I've worked up to build an audience on my site, and then someone comes along and wholesale lifts it, taking credit themselves. Sometimes it's a content farm with what appears to be the intent to create a page with affiliate marketing. Sometimes it's the exact wording, other times it appear to be modified with perhaps an automated program. (I'm not sure, but that often seems to be the case based on very unnatural re-wording). Sometimes it's people that don't really think about what they're doing and copy posts wholesale to forums. Sometimes with attribution, other times without. Some times they've made it seem like it's their writing, other times it appears to be done without malice, but is still copying the content without any attribution or mention of source.

The most recent incident happened with someone heavily borrowing from a post I wrote and using it for a significant portion of an Instructables guide. They didn't use the whole thing; I don't think it would be considered copyright infringement but I think it would be fair to classify as plagiarism. It's got the same outline and much of the same content. The big change is that it's much shorter. But the same outline and topic headings are used.

I have a couple concerns with it. The person used a number of my images, so that IS copyright infringement. The author tried to write a disclaimer that it was meant to be educational and not infringing. My understanding of copyright law would make it still infringement. But there are a few things that were odd. While most of it is copying what I wrote; some of it was changed to have a different conclusion; in my eyes incorrect (more on that in a little bit).

The second concern is that in this instance, the author has entered it into a contest on Instructables. I was almost okay with the this instance of using my content until I saw the very end where the author is encouraging people to vote. There is a prize for winners. I feel that is harmful and unfair to the other contestants. But ultimately, is it my job to police that?

(FWIW, I found this article because I have a google alert set up on topical keywords. I think I found it about a week after it was published.)

Then, there is the inaccuracies. The author has actually never done the activity described. Someone in their family did. And this is what concerns me; the information that was changed could be a matter of opinion, but as someone that has never done the activity and is both combining writing from other sources, and including incorrect (or at least dated) information. It's problematic because it is a guide about pet care, and my concern is over giving out bad information, and advocating information that could be harmful.

So I'm torn. On one hand, I don't want to slap down people who are fans. But on the other, there are a lot of people who lift the content, change it to pass on an incorrect message, or use it for personal gain. One real common problem is using my images to sell products. That seems more clear cut and I've demanded images be removed and in some cases, resorted to DMCA notices to the ISP. But how I deal with fans sharing information in a way that is sort of skating the border of sharing and stealing?

In the specific example that occurred recently, I privately messaged the author and asked she link to the original article. They did, but they also claimed they didn't remember seeing that specific article, even though they were familiar with my site and those specific images lifted were from the plagiarized article. They removed those images before replying to me and replaced with some they made themselves. I didn't ask the author to do so or even mention that I noticed the article had them, which suggests to me a certain level of the author trying to cover their ass. It was all kept very pleasant and civil because I didn't want to come off as a jerk to someone who seemed to like my work.

I'm not sure I'm okay with this resolution because of the information I perceive as incorrect; and that my content is being used as a contest entry by someone who actually hasn't put those things into practice. Some of them are probably harmful to the animals, others is just really dated information that's changed, I assume it's related to the information being second hand and older.

I'm really struggling to find a good way of dealing with issues like this. My audience is growing, so I'm sure this will happen more. The internet is all about sharing, so I don't want to drive away people by being overly zealous in protecting my content. At the same time, I'm not sure where to draw the line with outright copying. And more confusingly, with things that in the example above are plagiarizing, but not exactly ripping the content off word for word.

Any thoughts on how to manage this? Does anyone have similar experience with a growing audience, and if so, how did you deal with it? I'm interested in more a public relations strategy than specific legal remedies. Ultimately, this is uncharted territory for me. I don't know how to both maintain good relationships with people who are my audience, while deciding where to maintain control (or if I even should).

If it matters, this site is a passion of mine, and while I do have some limited affiliate links, it's not really a commercial venture. Some day if my wildest dreams came true, I'd love to make a living off of doing this; but I also don't expect to. My motivation has always been just to write about what I love.

I'm not including my link or the link to the Instructables article to avoid calling the author a plagiarist in case my definition is off. If anyone wants to see the specific content, memail me.
posted by [insert clever name here] to Media & Arts (5 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have a relatively large blog that is photo-heavy, and my stuff gets lifted all.the.time. Sometimes it might be by innocent people who don't know better, but much more often it's by scraper sites or unscrupulous people who harvest other people's content, slap it up on a garbage site, and monetize it to make a few quick bucks. As you can tell, I am so over having my content stolen and I have a pretty hard line about it.

First off, don't apologize for wanting to protect your content. Even if "the internet is all about sharing," that doesn't mean you can't defend your copyright and advocate against people stealing your work. You ARE sharing it--on your site. People taking your work and claiming it as their own is not okay if you don't want it to be.

For my part, I have mostly stopped contacting individual infringers and now go straight to the site host with a DMCA notice. If it's a small blog and it seems like they've used my work in good faith or like they don't know better, I'll shoot them a friendly email asking them to remove it. But if it's someone who's taken it to profit off of it--or in your case, to win a contest--I just send an email to the host with the DMCA information (or in your case, to Instructables) and 90% of the time that gets the content removed--the exception is often with international hosts, who don't have to honor the DMCA. Less hassle for me, less chance of back-and-forth arguing, and if this person is a repeat infringer, over time their host might dump them for being a copyright thief.

As to what you should do now that the pictures have been changed, your case is much weaker, since it sounds like this person now cites you, and that they rewrote your content so it's not a copy and paste job. If it's a really original concept and you think their copying violates the TOS of the Instructables contest, maybe look for a contact at Instructables to voice your claims. Otherwise, my guess is that you're out of luck, since it's not actually any sort of violation, other than an ethical one.
posted by Bella Sebastian at 4:00 PM on March 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

I think that the constant policing and other measures that Bella Sebastian mentions are simply part of running a popular website these days. There may or may not have been a time when you could build a website and hang ads off of it and money would just magically appear in your pocket as you sipped Pina Coladas and pondered your next post. But times change.

I don't know if this will help, but I recently read about some small porn producer that had met with some measure of success by offering free access to their site to anyone who pointed them at any site that was illegally offering their content.
posted by doctor tough love at 6:38 PM on March 11, 2015

You are being really airy fairy and hand wavey about this. Do not allow people to use your content without your permission. File a DMCA takedown, every time. Do not do this for photos that are not yours as you are not the copyright holder.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:34 PM on March 11, 2015

Response by poster: You are being really airy fairy and hand wavey about this.

I am. My concern is alienating my audience; perhaps those fears are over-blown?
posted by [insert clever name here] at 6:09 AM on March 12, 2015

Yes, those fears are over-blown. With fans like these, who needs enemies?

If you want to, you can give away something for free. If you think your fan base would appreciate it, you might consider making some of your material available under a Creative Commons Zero license, or uncopyright.

But you also want to reserve your rights to your most valuable stuff. In that case, DMCA takedown. Do not worry about offending infringers. They have already offended both you and the law. And they are offending your true supporters who want you to be able to make a living from this work.

I'd recommend taking and keeping screenshots of the infringing websites so that if they make changes, you still have a record that there was infringement. Just so that if you start to doubt yourself or if some rumor spreads that you were attacking someone for alleged infringement but the website looks OK now, you have a record of what that website looked like before you requested the takedown, and you can reassure yourself that you weren't imagining or exaggerating it.
posted by Bentobox Humperdinck at 6:55 AM on March 12, 2015 [2 favorites]

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