How writers can stop plagiarism: individually, and as a powerful, united, “pen”-wielding group

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but copying is theft. And yet stealing the writing of others has become so commonplace that teachers and professors feel impotent to put a stop to it, and many writers seem resigned to the inevitability of being ripped off, scraped, plundered, robbed and screwed.

I am not resigned. I can only begin to imagine my outrage if someone ever attaches his or her name to a story, essay or article I have written and tries to pass it off as his or her own (which has happened to many other writers but not to me yet, as far as I know). It was aggravating enough to discover that a post from this blog – which I had spent hours and hours creating (or years, it could be argued, if you consider the experience that went into it) – had been altered enough to make it hard to trace and almost unintelligible, then posted as part of a money-making machine set up by some scuzzbucket with a website registered in Russia.

Thanks to the diligence and knowledge contained within my fellowship of on-line writers, with whom I communicate at last count on about ten different sites, I managed not only to figure out who was doing this to me (and hundreds and hundreds of other writers), but also why – and what I could to do to address the problem.

How I Discovered I’d Been Pillaged

About three weeks ago, I Googled “Militant Writer” to get the link to my blog (usually I just use the autofill function on the Google toolbar but I was on another computer). To my surprise, the results included not only my site and a few unrelated items, but also a couple of links to what turned out to be mangled versions of one of my blog posts — on someone else’s website.

It turned out that the site, entitled Publish A Book, is a compilation of hundreds of articles previously published in dozens of different on-line publications – some from blogs such as my own, but others from more established commercial outlets such as The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post. In each case every fourth or fifth word has been replaced with a synonym, most of them slightly “off,” so that the articles come out sounding as though they have been translated into a different language, and then translated back to English. One sentence in my article reproduced on the other site read, for example, “It looks unpreventable to me now that except they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or maybe bath salts to sponsor themselves, the major publishing homes are going down,“ while the original version was “It seems inevitable to me now that unless they take up the sideline manufacture of weaponry or bath salts to subsidize themselves, the major publishing houses are going down.”

Screen capture of an article on canyoupublishabook.info

In addition to all the other articles,  I noticed that there were lots of ad links on the website but I didn’t yet understand what that meant. I looked around the site – without success – for an email address to which I could send a complaint. On July 20, I put a notice up on my blog to tell my readers what I had discovered, and I also started threads about it on FaceBook, Twitter, Google +, authonomy, the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Awards (ABNA) discussion forum, a couple of LinkedIn writers’ forums I belong to, and The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) listserve. I also sent a letter to Access Copyright, which is the Canadian Copyright Licensing Agency – with which I am registered (you will notice a copyright notice on my on-line posts). I cc’d TWUC, my lawyer, and a few other people.

It was a few days before I heard back from Access Copyright, and the representative there explained that they could try to help me to get some payment for having had my work used by someone else. I said that what I wanted to do was to have my post removed from the other website, and they told me that they could not help with that.

In the meantime, my fellow writers on the forums had been working overtime. One person (thanks again, tvguy) found the email address I had been unable to locate on the website (by going to the Privacy Notice page and scrolling down, down, down) and he discovered that the same email address was also the contact address for a whole lot of other sites (there were about 80 at that point) which offered advice and guidance (and links to more ads) for people who had questions about lung cancer, loans for bad credit, migraine headaches, and a whole lot of other conditions and issues. Another writer helped me by tracking the websites and the email address to an internet host which included an actual name and functioning email address, albeit one located in Vladivostok (which didn’t sound like a place that was going to honour my copyright).

Another writer colleague explained the rationale for all those sites – and the dozens of others like them that are proliferating on the Internet. He explained that these larcenists set them up to attract hits by people using search engines to look for information on certain popular topics – in this case, self-publishing. When unsuspecting visitors to these sites click on one of the many links contained within them, the owner of the site gets a payment – from Google AdSense or similar advertising programs. They probably get only a few pennies when someone hits one link, but when you have 80 sites and hundreds of links, they start to add up.

In the meantime, I had been going through the perpetrator’s websites attempting to work backwards to identify others who were, like me, being victimized by the owner of these websites (if you are looking for a new way to procrastinate on the Net, there is meaty potential here. The articles become puzzles that you can solve by trying to guess what word was in the article originally before they replaced it with a less meaningful synonym, then Google the result and see what happens). I guess I was thinking of “class action” remedies to the problem – if enough of us who had been wronged complained together, perhaps we could get the sites taken down.

I found the originals of several articles – including a few from blogs and some by writers for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and Toronto Star. I wrote to these latter writers, and ultimately to the papers themselves to tell them what was happening. (In response, I have had one “Thanks for the heads’ up” response from the WSJ, but that is all.)

What I Did

Despite really significant support from the writers on the aforementioned forums and this blog page (“Go get the slime, Mary,” was a typical response) and their excellent sleuthing skills (thank you, people), in light of the lack of interest exhibited by almost everyone I had written to directly, I lowered my expectations. I did have other things to do besides bringing down one scumbag. I decided I would settle for having my own blog post removed from his website, and alerting other people as to how I had done it.

On August 8, I sent the “Cease and Desist” letter I posted on the same day on my Militant Writer blog. I sent it to the email address that was posted on the “Privacy Policy” page of all those websites (which turned out to be a non-functional email address) and to the email address that was listed on the site where ownership of the website was listed (which seems to have been working). I sent a copy to Google AdSense (which required me to walk over to the FedEx office several blocks away and spend $12 to fax it, since Google and Google AdSense don’t have email contact addresses. Which makes me laugh). I sent copies to my lawyers in Canada and the USA, and to the papers to which I had previously written whose work had also been plagiarized.

Even though it was a big hassle to go and fax the letter to Google AdSense, I think that was the step that brought results. Google is based in a country that does have copyright laws, even if the plagiarist is not. (I have since heard that the perpetrator might not be just one person – that businesses to set up advertising-money-generating websites are popping up all over the Middle East and Asia, employing hundreds of workers at $1/hour to comb through articles in western newspapers, magazines, and blogs, alter them, and post them on these money-making websites. Others have suggested that the perpetrators use complex computer algorithms rather than slave labour.) It seems unlikely to me that Google is going to want to be seen as knowingly paying someone on the basis of stolen copyrighted text.

Whether it was the fax to Google AdSense or the email to the website owner, all of the articles I had pointed out had disappeared off the websites by the following morning (not only mine, but the examples I had provided from the NYT and the WSJ). The sites are still up, although there seem to be fewer associated with the fake email address grishina@addictiontreatmentinfo.net,  which leads me to believe only that there are probably now sites with a whole new fake email contact address on them. But it is time for me to get back to my own work.

What To Do If You Are Plagiarized

  1. Make screen captures (Command, Shift, 3 on a Mac) so that you have evidence of what has been posted and where it was copied from, with date stamps;
  2. Write a cease-and-desist letter (like the one I wrote) to the person who has done the plagiarizing. Use any contact addresses on the site to track down the legal owner of the site, or try http://who.is/

If you want to start strong – or with your followup email if the first one doesn’t work – send copies to:

  • the site’s web host if you can find it (e.g., if the name on the site is scuzzbucket at yahoo.com, send a copy to Yahoo);
  • any commercial interests that the plagiarist is working with via links or other promotional initiatives;
  • legal representation in the country where the commercial interests are based;
  • the media.

If that doesn’t work, then:

  1. If any of the stakeholders are based in the U.S., send the website a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice. The act is explained on Wikipedia and this WordPress site gives excellent guidance on how to complete a notice: http://en.support.wordpress.com/content-theft-what-to-do/
  2. Advise the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN. Note: I didn’t get around to exploring their site so I’m not sure if they have any interest or power in this area)
  3. If you still don’t get results and you can afford it, sue the bastards. If you can’t afford it, try to gather a group of other writers together whose copyright is being infringed by the same website owner, and put your resources together or find a pro bono legal service to help you to sue the bastards

Attitude Attitude Attitude

The important thing, as far as I’m concerned, is that we don’t just accept that plagiarism is the new reality. If anyone in the universe should be able to fight back eloquently and passionately against the theft of our writing, it is writers.

We can prove that the pen is mightier than the sword, and if we are fortunate (as I was) we can use our words to diffuse the problem before we have to start paying lawyers. Sending a copy to a lawyer is a good preliminary indication of your serious intent, however, as far as I’m concerned.

For many of us, our writing is our stock-in-trade. Most of us aren’t making very much money from doing it, but we invest a lot of time, thought and heart into what we write, and if our work is stolen and we don’t speak up, we are devaluing what we do.

We need to constantly remind our students and our readers that plagiarism is theft. We need to be familiar with, support and monitor the copyright legislation that affects us. We need to join copyright collectives like Access Copyright and post copyright notices on our work. (I am not a copyright lawyer, but I do know that you don’t need to pay to copyright everything you write in order to protect it. If you have evidence you wrote it — as I do here with my early drafts of this blog post on my computer — you are covered.)

We need to make a BIG, FOCUSED, ARTICULATE NOISE when someone rips us off, or steals the work of any of our fellow writers. We, both individually and as a group, hold the strongest weapon there is against the theft of our creative enterprise: our own eloquence. It is up to us to use it.

P.S. I welcome comments that include any additional information you may have on fighting copyright infringement. And stay tuned — I WILL be getting back to the important subject of self-publishing very soon, as I move closer to publishing The Whole Clove Diet.

Note: If you want information on how to detect plagiarism, or where to find plagiarism-detection apps, visit this blog post by Jennifer Murtoff. And tvguy, mentioned above, has found a way to warn off prospective plagiarists before they even start.

10 responses to “How writers can stop plagiarism: individually, and as a powerful, united, “pen”-wielding group

  1. Well done, Mary, you are an inspiration to all of us who write for a living!

  2. Brava, Mary!

  3. You really should remove the live links to the offending sites. All you do when you link to them is give them more clout in Google, which ranks them higher. They WANT the links to their sites, and visitors to your blog need only click for them to make money, because some Ads pay by impression and not by click. By leaving those link live on your blog, you’re actually helping the people who stole from you make money. None of us wants that!

    • Mary W. Walters

      Hi, Michelle,
      I thought of that, but then I decided that if i were reading the article, I’d want to see what the offending sites looked like. They are so distinctive that once you have seen one, you will recognize the format the next time you come across it. Also, I have been on those sites numerous times in the past two weeks and have not once been tempted to click on a link because I know what will happen if I do — and yes: that’s what I’m trying to prevent. I think my readers will avoid contributing to the scumbag’s income, too.

  4. Mary, thank you very much for all this information. I’m so sorry you had this experience — I can relate.

    I wrote a stage play with dance for production by my sister in law. She modified WE ARE SO DIFFERENT NOW for commercial and ideological reasons. It felt just awful to see my words, characters and plot used with just enough changes to water them down to cliches. My sister-in-law “couldn’t understand” that she had violated the spirit of the play and turned it from feminist to misogynist. “What is misogynist?” she wanted to know. This from a woman, this from a former lawyer :-).

    I was expected to be glad that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. She produced “her” play in three cities in India and then off Broadway with a change of title to “Draupadi: Will the Spirit Live On?” No payment.

    I did make “BIG FOCUSED ARTICULATE NOISE” as you put it, and was finally sent a one line acknowledgment on a graphic of a poster. She probably never used that poster thereafter.

    But I continue to make a “BIG FOCUSED ARTICULATE NOISE” about it, because ripping off another person’s work and then violating it shows utter disrespect for the creative spirit, and a brazen disregard for intellectual property.

  5. OhNO – there is a Russian site that has been hitting my blog a few times every week. A Chinese site too. Wonder if they are using my blog list to get to others.

  6. Thanks for this, Mary. If you want to show us what the sites look like, could you take out their links and put up a screen-capture image instead?

  7. REALLY useful information in an age where integrity seems to have become a quaint, but outdated, custom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s