Hooray/Dammit, I’ve Been Plagiarized: What to Do When You’ve Been Ripped Off

Kim looks very stressed out, after finding her work had been plagiarized

Yesterday, I discussed how to find out if you’ve been plagiarized, or at least had your stuff used without permission, but with your byline intact.

When that happens, it’s not uncommon to feel both flattered and angry at the same time. Jason Offutt called the feeling “flangry.” On the one hand, you’re pissed that your stuff was stolen. On the other, you’re flattered that it was good enough to steal.

Kim looks very stressed out, after finding her work had been plagiarized

Flangry: adj. The combination of being flattered and angry, after finding some jackwagon stole your work and passed it off as their own.

Regardless of how you feel, it was wrong of the other person to take it, and you have rights. Here are the steps to take if you’ve been stolen from, especially if they removed your byline, and tried to pass it off as their own.

(Remember, plagiarism is when someone passes your work off as their own; copyright violations are when they use your work without permission, but may leave your name intact.)

1) Immediately create a PDF or screenshot of the page.

On a Mac, select Print, and then set the output to be a PDF instead of a printed page. On Windows, if this option isn’t available, download CutePDF and output the page to a PDF. Next, save an html copy of the page. And if you have it, save it to Evernote. If you’re a designer or photographer, and one of your images is being used, take a screenshot. You need to do this, because as soon as the plagiarist gets a hint of what’s going on, all stolen content will disappear, and you’ll want proof of what happened.

If they have already removed the content, do a search for the original phrase that brought you there, and then hover over the Google results. A preview window should pop up in the side bar, as well as the word Cached. Click Cached, and you’ll see the older version of what Google has in their index. Print that to a PDF or take a screenshot.

2) Start researching their other content.

The only reason I heard about the two instances where I had been ripped off this month is because the person who first found he had been ripped off that that other stuff might be stolen too. In both cases, they researched all available columns they could find and discovered the original authors. They also saved copies of every stolen piece they found, as per #1.

3) Contact other victims.

If you find that other writers have been stolen from, contact them and let them know what’s going on. You can do it as a group email, or you can do it as a one-to-one email. Explain the situation clearly and without a lot of preamble, but recognize that some writers may ignore your email. One author in this most recent case of plagiarism thought the initial email was spam, so he ignored it. It wasn’t until he got a call from a reporter for a newspaper story that he realized it was real.

4) Present a unified plan of action, and adopt the role as leader.

This may seem a bit unusual, but it’s important if you discover that several people have been stolen from. If you’re the only victim, then you need to lay out a plan of action before you do anything. If there’s more than one of you, there should be one point of contact between the publisher and/or editor, and the group whose work was stolen. If the editor is being bombarded by 5 or 10 different people, then they may be less likely to be helpful. Be patient and cooperative, and the publisher is more likely to help you.

In the Jon Flatland situation, one of the writers went off-script and contacted the plagiarist directly. As a result, Flatland realized he’d been caught, and tendered his resignation via email admitting to a single act of theft, before his publisher ever got to the office. As a result, we (and the publisher) missed out on the chance to hear the plagiarist’s excuses, get an apology, and to royally ream the guy out.

This also means you need to hold off on putting the word out on social media and your own blogs until you’ve gotten some answers from the publisher. Trust me, this is so heinous a crime that a media publisher will drop everything to deal with it, because they know they’re facing some serious problems. You shouldn’t have to wait that long. Be patient, contact the publisher, and start writing your summary of the situation for your blog. Publish it when you get a final resolution from the publisher or editor.

5) Don’t start screaming about lawyers.

Chances are, if your stuff was stolen by someone in the traditional media, they have a boss and/or peers who all know it’s wrong. Journalists are trained not to steal. It’s the number one sin they could commit, so there are mechanisms in traditional media settings to bring them to justice. Instead, rat them out to their bosses, and they’ll take care of the rest. Ask to be updated on a regular basis, and pass that information on to your fellow victims. Chances are, the publisher will recognize the legal ramifications of someone on their staff stealing their stuff, and they will be eager to make everything right, just so you won’t sue them.

Instead, be patient, and wait for nature to take its course. If cooperation from the publisher is not forthcoming, or they refuse to cooperate, that’s when you pull out the big guns. Get a lawyer to write a nasty letter for you, and see what happens.

6) Use takedown notices and invoices for one-person operations.

Occasionally you’ll see your stuff used in someone else’s one-person operation. Whether they swiped your stuff without attribution, or your find it with your name and website included, there are times you need to defend your property and your copyright.

  • If they included your byline, ask them to take it down by including what it would cost to normally run your piece. Most people will comply if they think you’re going to charge them $150 just to run a single piece they copy-pasted; more if they took more than one piece.
  • On the other hand, there is some benefit to having a link out there that leads back to your website. If the site is not a spammy site, or it links to a lot of unrelated garbage, leave it up. You’re getting a little SEO (search engine optimization) juice out of it.
  • If they stole your stuff outright, let them know that you know. Give them 48 hours to remove it fully. If they don’t comply, get a lawyer to send a letter. Be sure to save a copy of that letter so you can use it later for future instances. (Get the lawyer’s permission to reuse it, of course!)
  • Also send a note to their ISP and/or web host. Let them know that one of their customers has posted unauthorized, copyrighted material on their site. Include the name, site name, and exact URL of the material, as well as URLs or copies of your original material. While SOPA may have died, most ISPs are still concerned about hosting stolen material, and will help the content owner. If they don’t, get the lawyer to write you another letter.

7) Suing for this stuff is hard

While you may think that a lawsuit for major theft is a good idea, keep in mind that it’s expensive and very difficult. And in most cases, it’s going after the wrong person. While the publisher is often responsible for the content of the newspaper, it’s the writer who did all the stealing, and tricked the publisher. You can sue the publisher, but they’re usually on your side (at least insofar as they don’t want to get sued and will cooperate with you to avoid it). So you’ll look like a real d-bag if you sue someone who tried to help you out.

Plus, there aren’t many lawyers who are willing to take these cases on contingency, so that means you have to come up with a few thousand dollar retainer to hire them. If you’ve only had a couple pieces stolen, it’s not worth it. If you didn’t actually lose anything monetarily or opportunity-wise, it’s not worth it. But if someone ripped off an entire book that went on to become a NY Times best seller and made the author fabulously wealthy — and you can prove your entire manuscript was stolen, because you registered it with the US Copyright Office (also read Wikihow’s “How to Copyright a Book“) — then, by all means, find an attorney and pursue it.

For the most part, people are honest. If they took something without permission, it’s because they don’t have a basic understanding of copyright laws (Tip: Just because you found it on the Internet doesn’t mean it’s free.) If you address it with someone — be polite, at least the first time — they’re probably going to be willing to do as you ask.

But occasionally you’ll find someone who knows it’s wrong, like a trained journalist, and they stole from you anyway. Follow these steps once you , and the action you think you should take. Hopefully you’ll never need it.

How to Find If You’ve Been Plagiarized

I’ve had my humor columns plagiarized three times in the last 10 years, the last two happening within 25 days of each other. The most recent one happened Monday, and ended with the plagiarist resigning his position as a newspaper publisher 24 hours later.

In the first case, I found out about it myself by doing some basic Google research. The last two, I was emailed because someone else did the same thing, and then did more diligent research, and identified a number of other humor writers who had been stolen from.

If you’re worried about your stuff getting stolen, here are a few things you can do to protect yourself:Red-headed kid with a magnifying glass

1) Google unique phrases and sentences.

The way most people check for plagiarism is to do a Google search for a unique phrase. The lede sentence here, “I’ve had my humor columns plagiarized three times in the last 10 years” is unique — no one has ever used it, in fact — so I would pop something like that in the Google search box.

But, and this is important, you have to put quotes around the entire sentence. This tells Google, “I want to find only instances of these words in this order. If they’re not in this order, don’t serve me the results.” That means sentences that say cooking columns instead of humor columns won’t show up.

Check at least three sentences per piece, just in case one of them was edited. And don’t search for sentences that contain the following:

  • Specific locations: One of my plagiarists changed my city names to his city names so they would be more specific to him.
  • Specific names: Any semi-smart plagiarist is going to know enough to change your spouse’s name to their spouse’s name. Same with kids, pets, and friends.
  • Dates: Unless it’s something historic, don’t search for dates. If you talk about being in college 15 years ago, that will get changed to suit the writer’s personal timeline.

Pick unusual sentences that seem almost innocuous. A string of words that is both unique and unnoticed at the same time. “I snapped my computer lid shut and took a drink” is a safe bet, “”But I’ve never been to Tallahasee!” Gladys shrieked.”

2) Search with Copyscape.com.

I was playing around with Copyscape for a couple of days, and quickly hit my free searches per month limit. They only charge $.05 per search on the Pro plan, so it may be a good purchase if you’re especially worried about being ripped off. It searches all content on a whole web page, rather than unique phrases, and it looks for any matching or near-matching phrases, not just ones you specify.

You can also drop in blocks of text to search for, which is useful if you work with freelance writers or teach high school and college classes.

The same company also has CopySentry.com, which will do regular searches on pages you’ve already written. It does a regularly scheduled search for any possible matches, and emails you the results.

3) Put a copyright statement with your name on every piece

Admittedly, this is like putting a sign on your window that says “please do not steal my TV,” but this may have the desired effect on one or two people. It also gives you a leg to stand on if you ever have to defend it legally. After all, the thief had to remove the copyright statement in order to publish it, so they can’t argue “It was like that when I found it.”

Two caveats about plagiarism

1) It’s not plagiarism if your name is still on it. If you find someone has lifted your stuff and left your name intact, that may be a copyright violation, but it’s not plagiarism. You’re still getting credit for your work.
2) You can’t steal an idea. Someone else may have — and probably has had — an idea on whatever it is you wrote about. If you’re talking about “five ways to rock your next presentation,” it’s been done. If you’re writing about “paintings you must see before you die,” it’s been done. In fact, any idea you had has already been done. Unless you invented something that has never been done before, you’re going to have a tough time proving that you had your idea first. If this is the case, speak to an Intellectual Property attorney.

Once you’ve found out your stuff has been lifted, your first instinct may be to go on the warpath and hammer the thief like the fist of an angry god. Hold that thought. Tomorrow, I’ll talk about what steps to take if you find you have had your stuff stolen. (Preview: It’s not to immediately confront the thief. There’s some work involved.)

Photo credit: jamesmorton (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Yet Another Serial Plagiarist Busted by Google

March is International Serial Plagiarist Month, apparently. Because it’s the month that I discovered my humor columns being ripped off by, not one, but two newspaper editors in North America.

Yesterday morning, I received an email from humor columnist, George Waters, who said that we, plus 12 other humor writers, had been ripped off by Steve Jeffrey, publisher of The Anchor in Chestermere, Alberta, Canada, in 42 columns out of the last 52 weeks.

Not just a line here or there, or one of the funnier jokes. He did a complete copy-and-paste job, made some edits to give it a local flavor, and then published it under his name.

(You can read a very thorough writeup of the plagiarism situation by Andrew Beaujon of The Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida.)

Bicycle thieves and Dutch police

If only plagiarists were this easy to catch.

Earlier this month, Jon Flatland of the Blooming Prairie (Minn.) Times was found to have been plagiarizing humor columns and blogs from several humor writers, possibly as far back as 15 – 18 years ago. He resigned in disgrace, and his publisher notified the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation and another writer notified the North Dakota Newspaper Association about his plagiarism. He’ll never work in newspapers again.

And 25 days later I get another email that I have been stolen from yet again, but I was only ripped off twice. Fellow humorist Sheila Moss had 24 columns lifted.

How do we know? Because Waters copied every single column published under Steve Jeffrey’s name from the last 52 weeks — the online archives for anything beyond that were not available — and Googled unique phrases from each and every piece, and found columns that were written beforehand by someone else. That’s how he found me and three Canadians, eight Americans, and one Australian. I’ve also used Google Cache to find copies of my columns in The Anchor’s Issuu.com PDF newspapers. (Note: Just because you delete something from your website doesn’t mean it’s gone; Google saves this in their cache for weeks and even months.)

But that didn’t stop Jeffrey from expressing bewilderment at the accusation that 80% of his columns were found to be nearly identical to columns by other people. According to Beaujon’s article:

Reached by telephone in Alberta, where he said he was about to travel to British Columbia for two weeks, Jeffrey seemed baffled by Waters’ allegations. His column, he told me, doesn’t even touch on comedy. “I don’t write humor, and I don’t blog,” he said. “I write a ‘Lighthouse’ column, but ‘Lighthouse’ is about local politics.”

Well, the Lighthouse columns I read from August 25, 2011 and October 13, 2011 looked an awful lot like mine, with a few details changed. One is from 2003 about the three hours I worked as a telemarketer in college, and the other was an open letter to a fictitious fellow traveler to Boston. In 18 years, I have never written about local Canadian politics.

God Save Me From Newspaper Editors

As blogging has grown in popularity, bloggers have been increasingly under attack by the media. Bobby King, president of the Indianapolis Newspaper Guild, once called us the animals in the blogosphere. And yet, it’s not the bloggers, but the highly trained professional newspaper people that have stolen from me.

Three times.

In all the years that I’ve been a humor writer, I’ve had my work stolen by three different newspaper editors. (I discovered my work being lifted back in the early 2000s by an assistant editor of a weekly paper in Ontario.)

That means Canada leads the U.S. in theft of my work, 2 to 1.

But I have never found a legitimate, serious blogger stealing anything of mine. (That’s not to say it hasn’t happened, but I’ve never found it.)

What’s most frustrating about this is that I’ve been writing my newspaper column for little to no pay for all these years, publishing it in 10 different newspapers around Indiana, and in The American Reporter online. I do this because I love writing, and I love making people laugh. Humor writing has never been about the money. I’ve tried self-syndicating, but found very few takers. “We don’t have the budget,” is the frequent answer. So I gave up trying to earn money from it, and just do it because I love it.

So it frosts me when editors — bearers of journalistic ethics and integrity — profit dishonestly from my work. They collect salaries, they collect advertising revenue, and they make their living by stealing something they weren’t willing to pay me for.

I still consider journalism to be a noble profession, and I still think editors play a vital role in informing the public. I won’t paint all editors with the same overgeneralizing brush that people like Bobby King have painted my profession. Hell, I got my “professional” writing start thanks to one newspaper editor in northern Indiana who took a chance on me 18 years ago, so I am forever grateful to editors as a whole.

But I’m also getting sick of media professionals decrying the state of the blogging industry, when it’s their brethren who keep stealing my stuff. If you want to talk about “the animals in the blogosphere,” let’s first have a conversation about “the thieves in the editors’ offices.”

Otherwise, get your own house in order before you attack mine.

And quit stealing my stuff.

Fallout from Steve Jeffrey’s Serial Plagiarism

Here’s what has happened since the theft was first discovered:

All archives from The Anchor’s website were removed immediately after the Poynter.org story, as have all of their PDF versions from Issuu.com.

I’ve been in touch with the Alberta Weekly Newspaper Association and I launched an official complaint with the Alberta Press Council. I don’t know what results those will bring, but hopefully we’ll see some sort of investigation and resolution.

UPDATE: According to an article in the Calgary Herald (“Calgary-area newspaper editor resigns following plagiarism allegations”, Steve Jeffrey resigned his position as publisher of The Anchor today (Tuesday). According to the article,

“I really don’t have any way to defend myself. I did use articles for inspiration, but thought that I had changed the content enough to comply,” (Jeffrey) said in an e-mail to the Herald.

Ripped Off Columnists

All links point to at least one stolen newspaper column or blog:

Stories about Steve Jeffrey’s serial plagiarism:

Because I believe in thoroughness and the power of search engine optimization, you can also read stories about Steve Jeffrey’s serial plagiarism at these blogs and newspapers:

 

Photo credit: welcome2bo (Flickr)