What Original Content and Plagiarism means for Bloggers
Plagiarism has been an ongoing plight ever since the invention of the written word and the blogosphere is no exception. So today I will attempt to resolve this issue (hopefully) once and for all.
Recently reader Jaffer asked the question:
I think people do have trouble understanding “Original content”.
For example if there exist several articles on how to go about installing a Widget, and then I go about writing another article on the same subject but not adding much to the existing articles out there - does that mean that my article is not very original?
What is Plagiarism?
Plagiarism is stealing someone else’s ideas and presenting them as your own … the false presentation of someone else’s writing as one’s own … in the case of copyrighted work, plagiarism is illegal ... it is the act of appropriating the literary composition of another author, or excerpts, ideas, or passages therefrom, and passing the material off as one’s own creation … using another person’s ideas or creative work without giving credit to that person ... presenting the words or ideas of someone else as your own without proper acknowledgement of the source ... plagiarism is the act of copying or borrowing the work or ideas of another author without acknowledgement ... students who are writing essays, reports, dissertations or theses must list their sources, such as books and journal articles, in a list of references appended to their work.
You will note that in the above definition I’ve specifically highlighted the word “ideas”. It’s no coincidence that the word “ideas” is mentioned so often.
In the literary world all written work is automatically assumed to be “copyrighted”, and in blog terms the word “references” means providing links to the original source of the material.
Most of us understand that quoting someone else’s work word-for-word without a reference to the original work is an absolute no-no. (Notice how I said “most”). But it seems that many of us still don’t know that it is just as wrong to add to someone else’s “ideas” without references either.
This seems to be the crux of the problem because so many bloggers today think it is alright to take someone else’s “ideas” and “pass it off” as their own work so long as they just alter the wording a little. But as we can see they are still adding to the original author’s concept or “idea“.
In plain and simple terms it is wrong not to give credit to the author of the original “idea“.
Now take a look at a typical Creative Commons licence that many blogs use:
“This license lets others distribute, remix, tweak, and build upon your work, non-commercially, as long as they credit you for the original creation.”
“Original Content” means just that — an original “idea” or concept, and what do you think “build upon your work” and “credit” mean? (Rhetorical question). You don’t need to be a genius or even a lawyer to understand that means adding to someone else’s ideas and linking to the original source.
Some licences may even state that you can’t make a “derivative” of their work. Meaning, adding to their idea is not allowed even if you should reference them with a link.
This Isn’t Rocket Science
Straightforward eh? But apparently the pro blogger / splogger crowd hasn’t quite figured that out yet, and their inability (or unwillingness) to grasp this simple concept of original content and plagiarism boggles the mind.
So as we can see it’s not just about directly copying information word-for-word (although that is a big problem as well). The bottom line is ripping-off (plagiarising) someone else’s “idea“ and adding to it without a link is in fact wrong.
So let’s take a look at Jaffer’s example above. In this case it is already known there are articles written on how to install a doo-dad widget, but Jaffer has a different (or better) approach to accomplishing the same thing.
So even though his approach might be a little different it would be appropriate to provide a link to these original source(s) because he is making a “derivative” work and “building”upon someone else’s original “idea” or work.
If it were me I would mention (with a link) that so-and-so has already written on the topic but I found a different way to install the widget. After all, when your readers search Google they are going to find the other author’s work as well as yours. So why not be up-front about it from the start?
Another way of looking at it might be if we have a different opinion or another way of looking at the same issue that someone else has written about. It would only be appropriate to add to the conversation by linking to the original author on the topic. (By the way, that also means not just linking only to our friends within our little network/clique or if they happen to have a great pagerank). If however we are the first to write on that topic then of course that would be considered truly “original content“.
Why is this so important? Well despite the fact that it is wrong not to, referencing the original article is a good idea because it adds value to the conversation in the blogging community – and that is what the blogosphere is supposed to be all about.
Most of us understand that we can’t be an island unto ourself in the blogosphere (unless of course if we don’t want any readers). So when the original author on the topic finds your trackback link they will probably come over to your blog and check you out. They might even add a comment and who knows, they might also subscribe to your blog and become a regular reader.
We also know that linking (both incoming and outgoing) is the stuff that Google uses to determine our blog authority and pagerank. So no matter which way you look at it, it just makes sense to link to the original source of your inspiration.
So if you search Google or your newsreader and take the best “ideas” from other writers and alter the words a little to “pass it off” as your own work (like so many problogger / sploggers do) without linking to the original source(s), then that would be considered stealing another blogger’s “ideas” and “plagiarism“.
It’s the “idea” or “concept” that matters, not only just the words or images. That’s why they call it ”intellectual property”.
It’s no different than copying someone else’s term paper in school. Taking the meat of someone else’s argument and trying to “pass it off” as our own work without a bibliography is considered cheating. No self-respecting teacher would allow us to get away with that.
The “idea” or “concept” behind what we write is important and credit should be given where credit is due. It’s the same reason why we should link to the person who first brought something to our attention that inspired us to write. Why? Because they were the one who first tipped us off and besides, we just know that it’s the right thing to do. That’s why. It’s also a great way to make new friends when they discover our trackback.
That is why I will often search to see if anyone else has already written something on the topic before I hit the publish button. Although I might not always be successful I try my best to make sure that I have something of value to add to the conversation and reference the other source where appropriate. That is only fair and right.
Sometimes of course mistakes will happen but it is the problogger /splogger crowd that intentionally steals content that I am concerned about. Unfortunately this is a disease running rampant throughout the blogosphere and the problogger / sploggers are the biggest offenders of all because they desperately want to feed the search engines and establish themselves as a so-called authority on a topic in order to make money.
Desperate times require desperate measures (or so they think). They have no compunction to raiding the blogosphere for “ideas” and “passing it off” as their own original work. In fact some even boast about it and recommend that their readers do the same. Outrageous!
After all, who can possibly keep churning out original material on a daily basis? It’s not easy (if not impossible) and don’t I know it from personal experience. I can’t count the number of times that my “ideas”have been ripped-off (plagiarised) by the problogger / splogger crowd.
It’s disgusting and I really don’t how they can sleep at night. Or maybe it’s the ca-ching of the cash register that keeps them feeling all warm and fuzzy. Making lots of money can hide a multitude of sins (or so they think).
As you know, the problogger / splogger crowd read this blog and lurk here regularly (and more recently even sent me a virus). But how many times have they actually contributed something positive to this blog? How many times have they ever linked to me despite the fact that they regularly raid my archives and “bounce off” my “ideas“? (Another word they like to use for stealing content).
Answer: Hardly ever, except for the odd time to flame me when I have to give them a kick in the pants. For shame.
The purpose of this post is to discuss the issue of “original content”, rampant “plagiarism” and how it applies specifically to us bloggers. It is not intended to argue the strict legal definition of copyright (if there is such a thing) or what is enforceable under law.
For example copyright law is notoriously porous and something that is a favorite topic for lawyers to debate, and although copyright might not necessarily protect our “ideas” under certain circumstances, our “ideas” are still patentable and trademarkable under law. It is also one of the reasons why the courts today are so clogged with law suites. In legal terms it’s called “passing off“.
If you are still confused here is a great resource that explains the difference between “plagiarism” and “copyright“:
In a nutshell:
Plagiarism is using someone else’s idea (usually a written idea) without giving proper credit for the idea— a failure to cite adequately.
Copyright infringement is using someone else’s creative idea, which can include a song, a video, a movie clip, a piece of visual art, a photograph, and other creative works, without authorization or compensation, if compensation is appropriate.
Then there is the matter of “fair use” and “derivative” works. Sound complicated?
How all this will apply to bloggers is still in flux because the law is a living, breathing organism, always adapting and changing and has yet to catch up to the technology. Newer laws still need to be legislated and precedents have yet to be made.
But more importantly we all know in our hearts what is right and what is wrong. We know if we’re cheating or not. So please do what is right and save the legal arguments for the courts.
Remember, the blogosphere is unique in the field of writing. Until blogging came along writing was primarily a solo vocation. But with the invention of the hyperlink, for the first time since the dawn of man the world is now wired to engage in a universal conversation.
This is indeed an empowering technology, and with power also comes responsibility. So let’s use it with integrity.