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:
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)