Dangers of Plagiarising Website Text
I recently covered the topic of image copyright for website owners to help people understand how they should go about sourcing images for their website or blog and how to avoid the pitfalls of copyright claims. Another, often less considered area of copyright is website text also known as content theft. I mean, surely it is just words and anyone could have come up with them so how can they be copyrighted?
The truth is, think of the internet like all other forms of media like a newspaper, a film or a cd. You can't publish someone else's songs as your own and neither can you publish someones else's text as your own. It may be free to publish on the internet but that in no way means that other people's content can be taken and used wherever and whenever you like. However, copyrighted text is slightly different from copyrighted images and I'll explain why, what the issues are, the risks, how you will get caught and how you can avoid it.
What is text theft and can people own text?
Text theft is also known as plagiarism and is the main goal of educational institutions to eradicate the possibility of a student replicating an essay they sourced online and using it gain a higher grade than they would be able to acheive on their own. It is also thanks to the educational institutions that a lot of work has gone into creating systems that can detect advanced forms of plagiarism and these same systems are used online to combat website content theft.
People can and do fully own their text. You don't even need to state the fact that you wish to prevent copying, as soon as you have written your article or text, you are the creator and you own this piece with or without the © symbol. Fortunately you can state that you would like people to copy or reproduce your text if you are an aspiring blogger if this would be a way to further your success. This is possible because it is up to you what you wish for other people to be able to do with your content.
The most common case where people misunderstand the laws on textual copyright is often when faced with writing content for their new website. Naturally everyone will have a look at their competitors website to gain a feel for what may be working for them or for inspiration on their own text. This is 100% fine and is almost standard practice in business. Where the line is crossed is when a new business such as a manufacturing plant looks at a similar website from a competitor or close business model and decides to copy their wonderful text and change the references to the other business name into their own. Surely this is fine if the other company never see it because they are too far away?
It is not your content therefore you should not be using any part of it without the creators permission. However there is a fair usage policy when using quotations or sample pieces in order to discuss another person's writing for review but you must credit the original creator. If you find text but can't establish who originally created it in order to credit, you should not use it.
By using the text you have found from another website, what you may have done is lifted a piece of writing that the company may have employed a copy writer (a person who specialises in writing content) and this will have incurred them a fee. By taking it and passing it off as your own you have stolen the work of the copywriter, without spending a penny or notifying them to ask permission.
Every scholar is familiar with the 'I'll copy it, but I'll change the words and juggle things about' scheme. Whilst this will most likely have evaded the scrutiny of a teacher looking at a hand written essay, the digital world is a far different beast. Humans tend to always come second when it comes to rivaling the power of computers especially with the technology on tap today.
With the desire for every written book to be made digital by Google, there is also a high risk that people who copy from old books or textbooks and rely on the work being unseen from a dated book will at some point be noticed and again, this is an example of plagiarism if you have not credited the original source and author.
How You Will Get Caught
Any time there is a problem that will be financially beneficial to the solver, you can guarantee a team will be working on it and software is a common solution to everything. Apple's app store is a breath taking testament to what can be done!
To combat the problem of plagiarism, highly adept software is available that can analyse text across the whole world wide web and identify where your writing is showing up. This can be cross examined with who should and should not be using this text.
But you changed the text and juggled it about? It still doesn't cut it, there is software freely available that analyses the text exactly and then on a whole looking for pattern recognition and structure similarities as well as grammar, tone and word choice to flag up examples of your text that someone has amended to avoid detection.
The Risks of Copying Text
The same risks apply with plagiarism as they do with image theft. There are free websites where you can paste in the URL of your own article such as this one, and watch it divulge all the instances it has found online of your text in a matter of seconds. Then it is just a matter of contacting each website using it unlawfully and the end result depends on how far the original creator wishes to pursue the matter or how much financial damage they feel they have suffered from the duplication of their work.
The other risk which is less obvious but will be detrimental to the purpose of you writing an article in the first place is that the potential search engine optimisation benefits of an original, unique and interesting article are negated when you duplicate other work. You will then be indexed as not being the original creator of the work and lose the benefits you should have had if the work was entirely your own.
Search engines always look favourably on the original source of an article.
How To Avoid Issues
Again, common sense should be applied to avoid the duplication of someone's work. By all means read other work, study it but do not copy it for your own purposes unless the creator has given you permission. The textual content is an area where a lot of people can find it very difficult to produce content for their own business or blog. Some may lack any interest in writing, or be doubtful of their abilities and some may not know where to start. So what do you do?
Copywriters are an invaluable source for creating content. Backed up with a great knowledge of what tones, words and structure are advantageous to your business and also some copywriters are also skilled enough to be able to write to attract customers and also search engines. I've written before about how the content on your website is the most important thing you can use to acheive good SEO rankings. The cost of a good copywriter should be easily made back with the attraction of the text spawning increased sales.
If a copywriter is out of your budget and you feel you are good with English or you know someone who has a good writing style then perhaps work with them to create something unique. You can also purchase books that will help you understand how to write effectively with some examples that you can use.
This may take a little more time and work but in the end it is far easier than having to deal with a writer who makes his living from his work who is now livid at you for copying it and threatening legal action. Always bear this in mind when writing your text, your efforts will be rewarded.
This blog is written by Paul Nimmo, a freelance website designer and photographer based in Kilmarnock, Ayrshire.
Click to find out more about my design & photography services.