Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Blog Plagiarism: A Close Call

I got an email last night from Melissa Donovan, who writes at Writing Forward. She alerted me to the fact that a blog called ProCopywriters had been posting articles from other blogs on its site, and that it may have done this with some of mine. I checked it out and didn't see any of my content on their site--but I was listed as a "contributor" among other blogs such as Copyblogger, Web Writing Info, and Freelance Switch.

There's a lively discussion about this going on at the Writers' Resource Center, where a lot of other bloggers complain that their content has appeared on the site without their permission. The owner of ProCopywriters, Jon Castleman, made an appearance and tried to explain himself. I wasn't crazy about his tone; he made a lot of condescending comments along the lines of "...not everyone here understands RSS" and "I thought that if you were a little more educated about what we were doing, you'd see it's to the benefit of both of us." But anyway, his reasoning was that:

a). Since all the blogs he uses as "contributors" had syndicated their content through RSS feeds, that means it is free for him to take.

b). Since he's lifting the content through an RSS feed and not through the actual website, it's not stealing.

c). Since he provided links back to the "contributor" sites, his use of others' content benefits the other sites as well.

I sent an email through the site asking that my name be removed as a contributor. I got an email back from Jon stating that they had begun the blog yesterday with the assumption that writers would appreciate their content being "syndicated" on his site. He seemed a bit surprised that he'd received so many emails from other writers asking that they be removed. Just to clear up any confusion over at ProCopywriter, I'm going to go through a list of reasons why other bloggers might object to their behavior.

They didn't ask permission. Okay, I admit--I've written guest posts for free and as a paid service, I've allowed my content to be syndicated, and once in a while I've allowed another site to use one of my posts or articles on their own site. But here's the thing, Jon: I was in control of where my content went. I gave permission. There are reasons why allowing others to publish my posts might conceivably help me; if Copyblogger, for example, loved one of my posts and just had to reprint it on their site, I might consider saying yes--despite the fact that the duplicate content issue might hurt me a little--just for the traffic and credibility that would bring. But I'd rather write an original post for them as a guest blogger. And if there isn't a compelling reason for me to let others publish my blog content, I won't do it. It's a pretty nasty surprise to find your hard work on someone else's site when you didn't agree to it.

They don't link to our sites--they link to our feeds. Jon claimed that linking back to our sites ought to show that he's in it to benefit the original writers as well as himself. But if you click on the link to my site under "contributors," you don't get my website--you get my RSS feed. This doesn't help my Technorati ranking, and Google doesn't count it as a link to my site either.

They use others' content to earn themselves advertising revenue. The Google Adwords on the left-hand column isn't paying into the accounts of the original writers, I'm sure. Jon, if you want to work out a revenue-sharing scheme with me whereby you publish my content and I get a healthy cut of the ad revenue, I might be up for it. But I'm not thrilled about my content earning someone else money without seeing a dime for myself. I didn't write all this just to earn ProCopywriter a buck.

It's not set up as a "syndicating news source"--it's set up as a blog. Go to the ProCopywriters website, and you won't see a big, obvious notice stating that all the content was written by other writers. The site refers to itself as a blog, not a syndicating news source that uses other people's blogs. Beneath the heading of each post, there's some very tiny, practically microscopic typing in grayed-out font that lists the name of the contributing website--but without a link. It looks like ProCopywriters wouldn't mind if visitors chose not to look at the fine print and assumed the content is their own.

They don't just post exerpts--they use entire posts. I have absolutely no problem with other bloggers quoting my work in their blogs and adding their own commentary. It stimulates discussion and generates traffic, and if I decide to continue the discussion on my own blog, I can link back and generate traffic for the other site in turn. But that's not what's happening here. ProCopywriters isn't using my blog posts to comment about some issue and continue an exchange that proves valuable for both blogs and readers. He's just posting other people's work in its entirety, with no commentary. He's not adding anything of value to the discussion.

RSS wasn't intended as a splogging tool. ProCopywriters seems to feel that because the content is syndicated, it's out there for anyone to post on their site--that's what RSS is for. But as far as I understand, RSS was created for people to subscribe privately to their favorite blogs--not to scrape content for their own websites. Feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, but it put me off that Castleman said others didn't understand the concept of RSS when he responded to criticism at the Writers' Resource forum. It seemed to me like he was the one who didn't understand.

Duplicate content can hurt the original writers. Google penalizes duplicate content sites by listing only one as the "source" site. The thing is, the "source" isn't determined by who posted the content first--I think it may actually be determined by whose site has a higher PageRank or something like that (SEO people, correct me if I'm wrong!). But there's a chance ProCopywriter's copy of my post might come up in search rankings--and mine won't show up at all. Not cool.

The whole thing reminds me of those bogus ads where the employer says he can't pay his writers, but they'll get lots and lots of "exposure." There seems to be a belief out there that writers really don't care about being paid; they just want to be famous. The ProCopywriters site doesn't exactly offer exposure I can't turn down--they don't even link directly to sites--and they don't seem to be familiar with the concept of royalties. If all the content we write is just available for anyone to use, how do these people--who are supposed to be professional writers themselves--suppose we make a living?

To his credit, Jon did remove my link from the site and told me in his email that he would not use my content. He also said that due to the responses from writers, they were going to consider rethinking their blogging strategy. That seems like a fine idea to me.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jennifer,

I hadn't even thought about the issue of duplicate content. Thanks for pointing that one out! By posting content from other sites, Google listings are negatively impacted. I understand that in the case of duplicate posts, Google determines one as the canonical source and does not list the other at all.

I'm glad you reported on this issue too because writers really need to band together and help protect one another from copyright infringement, plagiarism, and other abuses.

-Melissa Donovan

Jennifer Williamson said...

That's definitely a reason why writers should be aggressive in dealing with content thieves. I don't understand how a writer could simply let something like this slide; I really hope the other "contributors" listed take action.

Courtney said...


Sorry you got swiped as well! I just wrote the site owner and he immediately removed my content upon my request.

I was so glad that Melissa let me know! Good work Melissa!

(And congrats Jennifer on your top blog nomination!)

Jennifer Williamson said...

They seem to be responsive to people asking to have their content removed, at least. I guess it could be worse.

Thanks for the congrats--and the same to you! I saw your blog up there as well. I meant to write about that today, but the copyright issue came up last night and I had to jump on it.

Unknown said...

Your reasons are exactly why I'd be up in arms too, Jennifer. If they ask and if they link directly back, fine. If they post without any notice, permission or any link to the original site, they're stealing. It's unethical at the very least and illegal at the very core.

Garden Jabber said...

I haven't experienced blog plagiarism yet, but I have had sample articles posted without permission. I'll apply for a job with a "sample article," and then accidentally stumble upon the content on someone's website. Since most samples are previously published, a situation like this can create a lot of problems. I got Copyscape, and I check for stolen content religiously.

Anonymous said...

That's absolutely insane. I really can't believe some people. Good job on catching it so quickly. As always, I love this blog because its teaches me so much about the writing world.

Anonymous said...

I have had problems with copyright even too, but how does one address the issue? I found a blog that has been lifting my articles and publishing them without giving me or my website credit.

But what recourse do I have? There is no contact information, or even a real name for the blog owner. The comments are disabled as well.

The blog is published through Blogger, but as far as I can tell there isn't any way to report it since the content isn't violating any rules (i.e. it isn't sexually explicit or offensive). In the meantime, this guy is earning advertising revenue on other people's content. Why does Blogger allow this?

Does anyone know how to address this situation?

Jennifer Williamson said...

No wonder you're frustrated. Usually, your first step is to contact the site and tell them to take it down or else, but since there isn't any way for you to contact them, you can't.

Actually, Blogger is owned by Google, and Google doesn't look too kindly on this type of thing. Try emailing to report it. Include the name of the blog and a link to it, and include a link to your site as well--so you can show that yours was up first.

You could also report to major search engines to get their site de-listed. Here are links to how to do that with Google, Yahoo!, and MSN.

There's a good step-by-step on Copyscape on what to do when you encounter this type of thing as well. I hope this helps--let me know how it goes!