Website Plagiarism: How to find it and respond
I got this email the other day:
I’d like to setup a call with the principal of your firm. We’ve recently discovered a web company that has been plagiarizing our content. In doing our research, we’ve notice that they’ve also stolen from you. This should look familiar…
What followed was a link to an article I had written, but it wasn’t on my site. It was on another company’s website. There were a few minor changes, but it was 90% the same. They had even copied one of the comments and added it as a comment on their post.
How did we find it?
Together, we decided to contact them. Blair sent a email demanding they take down the articles and recommending that they take down their entire blog. The full email is posted at the end of this article. It’s absolutely worth reading.
Their first response? “We didn’t know that was plagiarism. We thought everyone does that.” So let’s get that out of the way. What exactly is plagiarism?
- pla·gia·rism (noun): The practice of taking someone else’s work or ideas and passing them off as one’s own.
Pretty clear. If you make it sound like you wrote it, but you didn’t, and hold it out as your own with no citation, no link, or attribution, that’s unlawful and you enter the world of copyright infringement. Had they cited the work and linked back to the authors, it would likely have been legit.
How do I know if my content is being used unlawfully?
It’s amazingly simple. Here is one of the many plagiarism checkers: Copyscape. Checking for violators is as easy as searching Google. Here’s how it works:
Just enter a URL, such as www.orbitmedia.com, and you’ll see a list of four websites that have copied text from the Orbit website. Clicking a link in the Copyscape list brings you to the offending site with the plagiarized content highlighted, like this:
This is the home page of the Versions Design website, with the plagiarized content highlighted. This tool also tells you how many words were copied and what percentage of the page. How fitting that the company name is “Versions.” It’s a version of Orbit content!
To prove that you are the actual author, you can use the Way Back Machine to show who used the content first.
Why stop with the content when you can copy the entire website?
This is classic. Here’s one that copied more than our content, they copied the entire design! The layouts, the navigation, the position and dimensions of the elements, all of it.
Compare. This is the Orbit home page…
…and this is their home page…
Carbon copy or an amazing coincidence? It’s not even that they liked the general design, but they substantially copied nearly every aspect of the Orbit site.
Even better, compare the web process pages side-by-side:
How could this be anything but plagiarism? Wait, their button is blue. …how original.
How often does this happen?
Believe it or not, we’ve seen this happen to four client websites in the past few years.
Each time, the client’s website was completely copied, with only some of the content changed. In one case, they didn’t bother to remove the Google Analytics code when they posted the copy! Pretty easy to find that one.
What’s my recourse?
Here are 7 things you can do, escalating in aggressiveness:
- Send a Cease and Desist letter. This is the first step in the legal process, but not necessarily the last. Hopefully, it’s enough and they quickly remove the content and contact you with a contrite response.
- Notify their Chamber of Commerce, if they belong to one.
- File complaint with the Better Business Bureau.
UPDATE: The BBB doesn’t handle anything other than “marketplace activity.” In other words, if it’s not between a vendor and a client, it doesn’t affect the rating. Amazingly, the plagiarists mentioned above still have an A+ rating in the BBB. Keep this in mind the next time you’re impressed by a high BBB rating.
- Write a one-star review on their Google place page. Start by finding the listing in Google Maps, then click the big, red “Write a Review” button.
- Send a “Take Down” letter to their host, requesting that the site be taken down immediately under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA). Here is a template for one (yes, it’s ok to use this). Just find the host using a lookup service and fax the letter in. Some hosting companies make this even easier with an online form.
- Report them to Google. It’s perfectly legitimate to notify Google that you believe an unauthorized use of your copyrighted work is appearing in search results. It’s also perfectly reasonable for Google to blacklist them, removing them from all search results. The domain will never again appear in a Google search, even for the business name. Game over.
- Sue for damages. Not my style, but it may be appropriate. Contact a good attorney and have at it. Federal copyright laws, and potentially others, will apply.
Aside from all of these legitimate, but negative responses, if you’ve ever had someone use your content without your authorization (or at least a citation of authorship), consider doing something positive and creative. My first instinct was to write this article and share my experience with others. But I’ve also made some new friends. I really connected with Blair and Mark from Newfangled (they build conversion-focused websites), and I plan to keep in touch with them.
Imitation is the sincerest form of (unlawful) flattery
Just don’t ever do it. Even if you’re the type who can copy from others and not lose sleep over it, you’ll eventually get caught. It takes less than one minute to catch you. Besides…
What happened to differentiation? What happened to standing apart? What happened to being real? Being authentic? Being yourself?
And finally, Blair’s email to the plagiarists
This is a gorgeous piece of business writing. Legal threat, yes, but also a coach-able moment…
Dear (name withheld);
This is my friendly email of free advice to you on your business and your content strategy.
A content strategy is something that is delivered over time. It is the byproduct of focus, exploration, learning and — time. In addition to getting you found through organic search and proving your expertise, it forces you to build expertise. In some ways, also, your content is a chronicle of your journey and development.
From what you’ve done it seems that you are seeking to enjoy the benefits without doing the work, and it’s failing on a number of fronts.
The pieces that you lifted almost verbatim read well, but they should – the original articles were written by people with years of experience based on hundreds or even thousands of hours of work, filtered through a strong point of view. But these are stolen properties that represent thousands of stolen hours from people whose time is worth hundreds of dollars per hour.
Other articles where you’ve essentially rewritten in different words somebody else’s piece still constitute theft (to me, but it looks like a judge will be the final arbiter) and make a false claim to you having put in the hours, arrived at the understanding and developed the point of view. If you think it’s okay to do this because it doesn’t match your high school definition of plagiarism then you are about to find out just how wrong you are and how costly this behavior is.
Further, these re-written pieces are painful to read. Instead of trying to develop meaningful expertise you seem to be putting all of your energy into building a facade of expertise. Your hurry to publish content without creating or even properly synthesizing ideas from others comes shining through. The remaining pieces on your site that were clearly “inspired” by my work are painful for me to read and I would never publicly claim them as mine but I still resent you taking them – they were written based on thousands of hours of practice and learning. I can’t imagine these are helping you in any way.
You removed the articles that were lifted from me in whole or in part but there remain articles where you’ve taken my ideas which I publish for your use in PRACTICE not so you can appropriate and claim as your own – and you’ve done just that – claimed the ideas as your own. I’m a consultant; people take my advice (customized to their situation in a fee engagement and for free via published articles) but they don’t TAKE it the way you’ve taken it by rewriting it and claiming they were the originator.
You seem to think highly enough of me to appropriate, if not follow, my advice and even to pay for a membership to my online learning center, so I’m going to give you some advice on rebuilding your firm moving forward. Here it is.
1. Take down your blog. My suspicion is that there is little true original content there so you might as well start over. If you’re not honest with yourself and not getting legal counsel I fear you’re going to try to get away with doing the bare minimum to escape consequences and I can tell you that if we feel your efforts don’t go far enough we will go after you with every legal means. You need to admit that your own judgment here has been poor. You don’t have to trust mine, but if you don’t you should be looking to someone else for help. That’s why God invented lawyers.
2. Pick a focus. I can tell by your keyword stuffing that you’re not following the most foundational piece of my advice (focus). In addition to stealing numerous articles from Newfangled, you have also taken their description of themselves. Newfangled can pull off a broad focus because they have tens of thousands of hours of building expertise, and they prove it through their thought leadership (which you’ve stolen). You need to retreat to an area that you can build a leadership position in.
3. Build expertise first, then write about it. It’s perfectly acceptable to get inspiration from others but you don’t read something and then sit down and try to replicate the article you’ve read. I have articles on my website that have taken me over a year to write but they’re rooted in my actual experience, and that’s why they are valuable.
I hope you can make the corrections, admit your errors and take a more legitimate path to building a solid firm, but your window to do so is closing quickly.
Well said, Blair. If you’ve had an experience with plagiarism (or just have strong opinions about it) let us know with a comment below.