In the wise words of David Ogilvy, ‘Imitation may be the sincerest form of plagiarism, but it is also the mark of an inferior person.’ What better example of this than the recent launch of Skittles’ new website, to the dismay of a public who sees it little more than a rip-off of the novel concept used over at the home of the Modernista! ad agency. With WordPress commentator Lorelle VanFossen having officially declared it ‘The Year of Original Content‘, it’s a relief to see that online creatives are becoming more vocal about the preservation of the integrity of their content. Because let’s be honest — it’s far from pleasant to find that despite taking the risk of appearing anally retentive by plastering your copyright policy in every corner of your site to curb wanton imposters from taking more than their fair share of your time and thought invested without permission or due attribution, there are individuals who persist to steal either directly or through the convenience of creepy crawly spambots. And it is unfortunate that in a world today where blogging provides grounds to help cultivate new and dynamic voices in an arena where politics, the sciences and arts may be explored and discussed freely, the infringement of one’s proprietary rights in relation to their content is as common as it is everywhere else in the media landscape.
And though complex the nature of copyright and ‘originality’ may be by definition, it baffles without fail every time to see that those either callous or inadvertently unaware of content protocol could have otherwise simply sent an e-mail to ask and clear up any doubt if site policy failed to convey the message with a level of clarity that they would appreciate and respect. In writing this, it will fast become obvious that I have dealt with the matter first-hand on numerous occasions, the inaugural moment being that which involved a derivative work of a creative (and personal) piece of mine, about which I was fortunate enough to be notified. But in the past couple of years, it has since continued much to my dismay, spanning all content in surprisingly unique ways that one begins to wonder whether or not content thieves know they would be better off directing their seeming ingenuity into creating their own work instead. In addition to this, the Fair Use and Creative Commons guidelines exist to provide an alternative more conducive to upholding a creative and inspirational forum and flow of information, so that content creators need not be confined only to a full blanket policy requiring the sort of policing that takes a great deal of one’s time.
And let’s not forget the grey area left in the wake of web conventions established amongst online creatives that develop far too quickly for official copyright legislation to instantaneously adapt and reflect real action on the ground. Already there has been considerable discussion regarding the acceptability of deep-linking and the excerpting (at varied lengths) of written content online. It’s not unheard of that trusted sites and bloggers repeatedly attribute content to the wrong individuals or forego on attribution entirely (this applies to video content especially). And yet it’s not much better when adamant bloggers intent on posting daily decide that every little thing they find of interest can be ‘excerpted’ with a sentence of their own tagged at the beginning of it to sell it off as a find worth reading on their page. Of course the incorporation of any advertising or commercial gain into this equation makes it all the more dubious; the same goes for SEO and the mere desire to increase traffic. But even without that, a website claiming to provide ‘news’, ‘thoughts’ and/or ‘opinions’ should not rest solely on what FriendFeed and Facebook Links ultimately amount to.
But equally disconcerting are the bloggers you know personally, who repeatedly dig up your old content to rework into their own, who perhaps believe that your blogging memory only goes as far back as a few weeks and thus they have some sort of licensed access to a smörgåsbord of your work to sell off for personal gain. Although not much can be done about this other than to tolerate it within the confines of non-commercial ShareAlike without attribution, it is when it’s a few words short of full-on plagiarism that it becomes difficult to ignore. Cyber-stalking (or what I like to call ‘parallel posting’) is behaviour more akin to Hirudo medicinalis, reflecting poor judgement on behalf of the parallel poster — though I would gladly stand corrected in the instance it all turns out to be one statistically implausible coincidence, nine times out of ten. Nevertheless, as I can’t emphasize this enough due to previous, more serious experience with having work taken through alteration and wrongful attribution, here is the license under which the written segments of this site operate (unless otherwise stated, i.e. non-applicable to creative non-fiction and original artwork featured, all of which require explicit permission). Internal documentation has also been updated to reflect as much.
But hopefully time spent monitoring suspected trackbacks, scraper sites and copycats will soon be decreased considerably. In celebration of The Year of Original Content, I’m currently beta-testing a fantastic new service called FairShare, which automatically provides a feed that updates in accordance to your site’s content and other content on the web that may have been taken from it. What makes it so convenient apart from sending all of the information to Google Reader is that it provides links to a page showing the exact site it has detected, the percentage of the work used, whether or not it is a derivative, if it complies with your registered license, whether advertising is present, how much traffic it receives, and the list goes on. There is also a content search available through the Copyscape services which have proved useful in the past. And Lorelle VanFossen has written extensively of her insights into how best to deal with one’s blogging and site content — including how to report theft, where to include one’s policy, when to send a cease and desist notice, etc. Most certainly worth checking out (as well as reading the Digital Millennium Copyright Act), regardless of if you’ve ever experienced anything of the above or not.
The important thing to remember in all of this is that it is not often easy to make clear distinction between harmless imitation and more serious plagiarism, theft, scraping, cyber-stalking and downright harassment. Whilst tiring with eyes plastered open through my studies of tort law, constitutional law and most things in-between, the one thing I have to hand to the mind-numbingly dry experience of it all is my respect for some of the well-meaning achievements in the written body of intellectual property law. Its applications are not always correct, consistent, nor apt to every given situation, but the underlying premise aiming to balance between creativity and commercial gain is one worth preserving. To preserve the integrity and relative originality (more on originality in an upcoming post) of one’s ideas, to allow for the recognition and endorsement of such work, all the while motivating the creator and conceiver to continue on with their fruitful endeavours in order to further drive development in the world of science, art, music and writing is no easy feat in an age when exact duplication, wrongly directed advertising, rampant profiteering, unwanted spamming and malicious scraping are all just one easy, mindless click away.
Sarah Badr © MMIX
See also: Creative Commons