The Plagiarism

I’m going to try to consolidate a rather large story into a less large blog post. I promise to mix in photos of cats. Cats loathe plagiarism.

I’ll start on Sunday.

On Sunday night, I got a trackback through WordPress (the platform I use for this blog) informing me that someone had linked to my blog. This always makes me happy. Just the other day someone posted a Fan Forum link to my entry on who Rachel should have ended up with on the TV show Friends, and it re-enlivened the discussion on that entry (55 comments and counting, 256 votes on the poll).

So I clicked over to the trackback link and find a very nice looking site about dating. The entry in question is called “Dating Do’s and Don’ts: The Perfect Profile.” (UPDATE 7/20/20: The entry has been taken down. The site in question can be found here.) Don’t click over there, because you’ll need to first see what that post looked like until around noon today. You can see that by clicking on this thumbnail (it’s a screenshot from this morning).

Basically what you’ll see is a short introduction by contributor Cindy Van Arnam followed by my entire original blog post, copied and pasted, on how to write the perfect online dating profile. Here, I’ll zoom in so you can see how the introduction leads into my blog post, because this is really important:

Now, if you were Average Joe Reader, whose work do you think you’re reading when you get to the orange text? Cindy Van Arnam’s? Site coordinator Fiona Fine? Or anyone else in the world?

If you don’t read my blog or don’t remember that entry, you’d think the orange text is original content from Fiona or Cindy. No question. Orange does not indicate “written by somebody else.” At most, orange says, “This is the important part of the entry–pay attention to it.” And most like, orange means nothing to most people.

If you go back to that thumbnail, you’ll see that my entire blog entry is copied and pasted onto the website, followed by this:

Okay…so….first, the “full article” is already copied and pasted above. And second, there’s no mention of my name or my blog. Just an ambiguous link. There’s no insinuation that the above post was written by me–rather, by not insinuating that it was written by me, it insinuates that it was written by the author of the blog post. Whom, to Average Joe Reader, appears to be either Cindy Van Arnam or Fiona Fine.

That’s not cool.

So on Sunday night I sent Fiona the following note. I was aiming for “civil but firm”:

Hey Fiona, I just got a trackback from your site for this entry. I’m flattered that you’d link to my blog in your post, but I’d ask you to do two things: One, at the beginning of your entry before you get to the content I wrote and own, please mention that the following entry (the orange part) is from my blog. And two, please do not post the entire blog entry on your site, as there’s no reason for people to click over to the original content at that point. Perhaps you could just post the first few bullet points and the info about the first paragraph, and then insert the link to my blog.

I really do appreciate you discovering my blog entry and sharing it with your audience, but those are my stipulations for you reprinting my work on your blog.

Thanks!
Jamey

Now, if I got an e-mail like that, I would act immediately. No writer wants to be accused of plagiarism, because we all get it: If other people take credit for our work, we lose, and no one’s the wiser.

Walter wants to sink his claws into original content, not plagiarized writing.

But the following morning, I hadn’t heard from Fiona, so I contacted Cindy on Facebook. Cindy wrote back quickly, apologized for the issue, said she couldn’t personally change it since Fiona is the admin, and assured me that “[we] will be taking steps to ensure that we change our process of linking back to other author’s content.”

Okay. Not bad. A little ambiguous, but a step in the right direction.

But when nothing had changed that afternoon, I decided to post my letter to Fiona in the comments section of my blog entry on her website. I figured if a reader read the entry and noticed the comment, they would know who actually wrote it. I thought the comment might go to moderation, but no, it posted right away.

Problem solved, kinda.

But when I checked the site later that night, I discovered that the comment had been removed. And there was still no word from Fiona, nor had anything changed on the site.

Okay, I thought. Game on.

Except…I didn’t know what type of game was on or how to play. Was it actually plagiarism? After all, they had linked back to the original entry. And if it was plagiarism, what could I possibly do about it?

So I wrote a post on Facebook. I won’t repost it here, at least not in full (it’s pretty much what I said above, but shorter). I really just ask people what I should do. Here’s the thumbnail of the post if you want to read it:

I thought a few people might respond with their thoughts. Hopefully a lawyer or an English teacher among them.

122 comments later…

Biddy is not amused that his papa’s writing is being used to make someone else money. Money that could be spent on cat treats.

Yeah, the post struck a nerve. Rather, the plagiarism struck a nerve. Which is awesome. In a world of movie and music piracy, people still care about plagiarism. They get it. They know how bad it is.

I think a big part of that is how easy it is to not plagiarize. All you have to do is make it clear that the content isn’t yours and link back to the original content with proper accreditation. SO easy.

What happened after I posted that Facebook update was pretty awesome. Tons of people–friends and strangers alike–commented with ideas and suggestions. Many of them tried to post comments on the website to redirect them back to the original content. Others went to the Facebook page for Fiona’s website and posted there.

First, we did determine–without question, really–that this was plagiarism. Surprise! Fiona (or Cindy) was passing off my work as their own. And they were profiting from it–unlike my blog, Fiona’s site generates money. Her rate for reviewing an online dating profile–the topic of my blog entry–is $197.

Thanks to this Cornell law post submitted by Nicholas, it’s abundantly clear that not only was this plagiarism, but it was blatant plagiarism due to the fact that Fiona/Cindy were profiting from my writing without my permission or proper credit.

So what could I do? Turns out I had a bunch of options. If you think you’ve been plagiarized, these are great options to consider:

  • See if anyone with more power and money has been plagiarized by the same people and inform them of the plagiarism. Renee had this idea, and it was pretty brilliant, especially since she found this article on Fiona’s site that has content copied and pasted from the Huffington Post. I contacted the author of that original post to inform her of the situation.
  • Get a lawyer. Or marry one and get free law advice.
  • Take screenshots of everything. You might need them later. If you use Google Chrome, you can download the screenshot plugin in 2 seconds.
  • Issue a DCMA takedown notice. This is basically an official document telling someone to remove your content from their site. Here’s an easy fill-in-the-blank version shared by author John Scalzi.
  • Register your work to be eligible for statutory damages. Registering your work costs $35 here. If your work is registered, you can collect statutory damages ($700 to $30k) or even up to $150k if the infringement is found “willful” (i.e., you informed someone that she was infringing your copyright, and she continued to infringe despite your notice). I’m not sure if this works in hindsight, though, and it’s financially impossible to register every blog entry I write.
  • Contact the webhost. No webhost wants to be associated with plagiarized content.
  • Expose them like on The OatmealI have loyal readers, but not on this level. However, this might work for some people. In fact, this blog entry is a version of what the Oatmeal guy did.
  • Add clarity to your blog/website regarding the specific method by which people can share your content. Joe shared this good example from Michael Hyatt’s site.
  • Mobilize people. Like I said, I didn’t realize so many people would respond to the Facebook post with such passion. But they did, and it made all the difference in the world. Because at noon today, we finally heard from Fiona Fine herself. She posted directly in the comments section of my Facebook post:

I responded, there was some back and forth, and after an hour or so, the original entry on Fiona’s website had been changed to its current state. My content is truncated so that one paragraph remains a mystery to an eager reader, and the link at the end has changed to “Click here to read the full article by Jamey Stegmaier.” (Which is still a little weird, since it says at the top of the page that the article was contributed by Cindy Van Arnam.)

Now, I’ll say this: Fiona in particular was flooded with fairly nasty messages today, and she responded in a civil tone. We should remember that she could have easily posted my work without any link at all, and I never would have known. She says that “there was definitely no malicious or intended subterfuge.”

I want to believe her. Cindy too. I want to believe that they somehow had no idea that this was plagiarism. I want to believe that they truly thought that linking at the end without citing the source was enough. Not just with my post, but with every post on her website

But I gotta say, it’s really tough to believe when you look at those first few paragraphs. Which, by the way, haven’t changed despite more than 5 formal (private and public) requests by me to adjust them to show the reader that what follows is written by someone else. Here’s one such request:

It’s a reasonable request. I’m not asking for her to post a photo of my cats on her website or for her to completely remove my content. I’m asking for a proper introduction so readers know the difference between Cindy’s writing and my original content.

This is Walter sleeping with his paws to the wall. It has nothing to do with plagiarism.

And yet she hasn’t changed anything. Which is a problem. And it will lead to a DCMA takedown notice and possibly more of those bullet points above. I’ll marry a lawyer if I have to. [UPDATE 7/18/12: A formal introduction to my content has been added to the post. Yay!]

I do want to say that two good things came from all this. Molly pointed out in the comments that if my online dating advice is worth stealing, it might be worth selling. I love giving away advice for free, but I’m also quite good at re-writing online dating profiles, and I’m willing to charge much less than $197. I’m thinking somewhere around $39. So I’ll be launching that service soon. I need more testimonials than the ones I currently have, so for a limited time I’ll offer this service completely free (in exchange for your testimonial, of course. So I guess it’s not free. But you can say whatever you want about the service). E-mail me at jamey.stegmaier@gmail.com if you’re interested.

The second really great thing that came of all this is that SO many people chimed in to help make this happen. Friends and strangers alike. I am truly moved by this outpouring of support, and so I’d like to thank each and every one of you. Below I’ve collected the first names of everyone who commented, shared, or Liked any of the posts relating to this plagiarism incident. Seriously, thank you all. You’re awesome, and I want to give you full credit for making a difference. Here are your names, printed all big and bold:

Jennifer, Linsy, Jamie, Erin, Renee, Emma, Elisabeth, Bryce, Amy, Maren, Bridget, Joan, Stetson, Carol, Emily, Tomomi, Laura, Katy, Bethany, Tim, Joe D, Rebecca, Eric, Bob, Jen, Gabby (barely), Nicholas, Christopher, Molly, Trev, Andrew, Joe S, Dan, Kristy, Adam, Paul, Nichole, Jordan, Orianna, Tricia, Christine, Michelle, Jasmine, Carol T, and Brad.