I stumbled on a tweet earlier this afternoon which really caught my attention. I was reserved about blogging on the matter, but really felt the message to be too important to not bring it out in the open. It started with a tweet from Matt Ridings (@techgeurilla) which drew attention to a blog site which was scraping Olivier Blanchard's (@thebrandbuilder) blog post:
I don't want to draw any more attention than needed to the scraped post - suffice it to say that I found the idea of a company copying a post written by Olivier word for word on their own blog to be beyond belief. And as unbelievable as it may sound, it appears they have copied more than one of Olivier's posts.
Plagiarism by Any Other Name
In my second year of University, I decided to specialize in something so I chose to do a major in Public Policy and Administration. It was a fancier way of saying I was going to major in Political Science. The introductory core course was taught by a tough but fair professor. She was extremely bright, and was fast approaching tenure at the University.
It was nearing the end of the school year, and she had been prepping us for weeks on a paper that was going to make up a huge part of our grade. Because it was a core course, we needed to score a B or higher in order to stay in the program, and while I probably made it sound like a bird course, it was actually a fairly competitive program, only second to the University's business program.
Many early warnings and instructional sessions took place leading up to that important paper - everything from the "how to's" of writing an essay right through to proper attribution and sourcing of reference material. York University defines plagiarism as "the practice of claiming, or implying, original authorship of (or incorporating material from) someone else's written or creative work, in whole or in part, into one's own without adequate acknowledgement."
I'll never forget the feeling when I entered the classroom and watched/heard the department head giving a very serious and stern lecture the day we were expecting our essays back. 70% of the class had been caught for plagiarizing - that amounted to close to 200 students. I was panicking so hard that day, trying desperately to recall what I had written, and hoping I wasn't one of those students. Thankfully, I wasn't, and many not only failed the course, but were facing academic probabtion due to the severity of the offense. I'll return back to the rest of this story later in the post.
Uniqueness and Creativity
With the amount of social media monitoring we perform, it isn't unusual to stumble upon scraped posts originating from servers sprawled all over Eastern European countries. In cases such as these, copyright on the Web can be tricky business because laws written in one country carry little or no weight in other parts of the world. This particular incident is a little different from the kind of blog scraping we see, and that's because it points to a marketing and design agency based out of Portland, Oregon. And yet despite the fact that it's a company on American soil, it would seem that many of the back and forth chats with Olivier and Matt earlier, online scraping and/or plagiarizing isn't anything new and it's happened to quite a few other well known bloggers.
Flattery or Dishonesty
As a sideline observer to this whole notion of "imitation as the best form of flattery" I must admit that I find nothing flattering about it. Outside of the ethical wrongdoing, I'd have to think that the worst part of being caught plagiarizing is that you're really admitting you don't have anything unique or creative to contribute. But how is an offender made to realize that ripping off material and claiming it as their own is unacceptable and does more reputational harm than good?
It appears in this case, the best thing to do would be to communicate with the company, requesting that they either alter their approach or altogether stop scraping content that doesn't rightfully belong to them. I've read suggestions about reporting scraping sites (i.e if they use AdSense, reporting it to Google) or alerting the hosting company they use about their activities. I'll leave the litigious aspects of copyright infringement to the lawyers.
Make Waves and Drown
Currently, a search on the title of Olivier's post shows 6 of the top 10 results referring to the original post. This 60/40 split makes me wonder whether situations like this hurt bloggers search rankings. Whether or not they are aware of the scraping, I'd have to believe that content readers will figure it out most of the time for themselves. But with all the changes in social media influencing search rankings, and Twitter spam getting its fair share of the credit that in the past would more appropriately reward blogger originality and creativity, is there an SERM risk in allowing incidents like this to go on without penalty? And what, if anything, can be done to stop it from happening?
Going back to the story about the students from my University class who were caught plagiarizing, they didn't fare all that well after being caught. In fact, there were rumors that many of the students parents ended-up complaining about the situation, which unfortunately led to the professor being dismissed from the program, and not getting tenure. In retrospect, it seems entirely unjust that the professor was caught in the crossfire, especially when all she wanted to do was make sure our academic prosperity was founded on principles of honesty and integrity. The experience left a permanent impression about the consequences of plagiarism, and this most recent incident with copying Olivier's blog post leaves me wondering whether the social Web's evolution will be built on unearned reputations, false claims of ownership, or rather, the kind of imagination and creativity which will give it dynamic staying power, and eventually rids scraping and plagiarism for good.
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