Thursday, October 1, 2009

Another Plagiarist Exposed

Angel Zapata exposed a plagiarist at his A Rage of Angel blog. Having experienced the same, I understand his feeling. I can even empathize with the fact that Zapata admired the guy's work before he discovered it wasn't really his.

Been there. Done that too.

Like most plagiarists, the guy Zapata uncovered is a repeat offender, a serial plagiarist. People who do this are fundamentally lazy, dishonest, and unimaginative. They don't suddenly become industrious, ethical, and creative. Thus, they steal again and again.

I've got to believe that intellectual property thieves eventually get found out and, at the very least, their reputations are tarnished. If they write fiction, they only hurt themselves and their publishers.

Zapata contacted the publisher, who initially defended the plagiarist. "I have known Richard for over a decade and do not believe it possible for Richard to be morally capable of such an act," wrote the publisher to Zapata. "As a person with a great respect for the law and with such a love of literacy, I do not believe this is something he could commit knowingly, if at all."

Regardless, the publisher took down the site.

A few years ago we caught someone sending plagiarized material to the Service Roundtable for us to publish. Once alerted, we took it down, noted the copyright violation, and linked to the original author's work. Anything we were in doubt about simply disappeared. Only work we were convinced was original remained. We acted fast, proactively, and notified the original writers what happened, what we did, and whether there was anything else necessary. We made sure we were covered.

I worry, however, about business owners who rely on plagiarists' work. If caught, the copyright holder will go after the business first. Remember, the business has the deeper pockets.

The business owner may try to defer to the plagiarist, but since plagiarists are dishonest by nature, don't expect them to take one for the client. Expect the plagiarst to disavow all knowledge, leaving the business owner high, dry, and under siege.

Lynn Frazier at the Writtenwyrdd blog, pondered about Zapata's discovery. Frazier asked, "Does the internet make plagiarism more common, or simply make it easier to find?"

Personally, I think it makes it both more common and easier to find. In the last year, a contractor showed me material a well-known consultant wrote. I could swear I was looking at my words. As it turned out, I was.

The consultant was quoting a marketing manual I wrote in 1995 under copyright to my employer at the time. Because it was hardcopy and not electronic, the text wasn't verbatim. The consultant couldn't cut and paste, so the work was summarized. Summarizing took less effort than retyping word-for-word.

Point after point after point was copied. Dollar amounts, when present, weren't changed. The manual included some off-the-wall ideas and honestly, some of them were pretty bad. The plagiarist copied good and bad ideas with equal vigor. If anyone looked at a comparison, there would be little doubt the original work was plagiarized.

If you used an Internet search engine and searched phrases from the plagiarist's document, you would never find the comparison. For one, the manual isn't available on the Internet in electronic form. For another, the phrasing differs slightly.

I only noticed the plagiarism because I was the original author. A select group of contractors who read the manual and saw the consultant's work might pick up on the similarities, but might not. It's been a long time since I wrote the original manual. My old employer doesn't even use the manual today (though the plagiarist apparently does).

I believe the Internet makes plagiarism easier due to the cut and paste opportunities. I think it also makes plagiarism easier to detect since exact phrases can be searched.

As a business owner, it's incumbent upon you to check the work of your employees, contract writers, and consultants from time to time. Pick unique phrases. Load them into a search engine and see what pops up. You might need to search through a number of pages and even then, you might not catch everything, but you'll stop enough to give you peace of mind.

I know. I do it regularly. I also catch enough intellectual property theft among contract writers to keep checking.

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