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The comprehensive guide to dealing with content plagiarism

Plagiarism makes me a little

I’ve had my content stolen time
and again. I’ve developed some very creative responsesIf I could invent a way to poke
content thieves in the eye via the internet, I would. 
Instead, I’m going to take a
shot at explaining what it is, how you can get in trouble, and how to avoid it.

What it is

Plagiarism is any unauthorized
use of another person’s ideas where you pass those ideas off as your own.

Key terms here:

Unauthorized. If I say,
“Sure, Mr. Butt, go ahead and cut-and-paste my post onto your blog,”
then it’s not plagiarism.

Ideas. It does not have to be a precise
. Stealing the idea is enough.
So rewriting doesn’t save you.

Passed off as your own. This
phrase is the source of a lot of debate. If you copy a blog post from my site,
and then include a link at the very bottom that says “As seen on” and
include a link, is it still plagiarism? Read below.

You can disagree if you want.
But here are specific examples:

Copying content w/o

This falls into the ‘duh’
category. Yet sites still do it. Sometimes, they use automated scrapers that
grab content from your site and publish it on theirs. Sometimes, they literally

It’s lazy. And obvious. And just
plain obnoxious.

Copying content with

Copying an article and then
providing a sad little attribution at the bottom is not enough. You’re still stealing. You must cite the original
author in your own writing. You’re citing them for contributing the idea, not
the whole bloody article.


Rephrasing an article is still
plagiarism. Here’s a great example I found:

On the home page of my company’s
web site, we say:

alphabet soup of Internet marketing is complex and ever changing: SEO, PPC,
CRO. What does it all mean?

Then, some clown took our
writing and pulled out the thesaurus:

acronym salad of Internet marketing is subtly nuanced and constantly evolving.

Acronym salad. I may leave them
alone and use their writing under the heading “Don’t let this happen to

Use of images, videos, etc.
without permissions

If you re-use an image in any
way, you’re stealing. ’nuff said. I learned a hard lesson about
this: My company used a Demotivational Poster from Cheezburger. You know ’em:
Posters that have images like an eagle grabbing a fish and then the title
“YOUR DAY – It’s about to get worse.”

Turned out, the person who made
the poster used an image from a major stock photography web site. We then used
the poster on our blog. The stock photo web site contacted us with a bill for

That was a valuable lesson.

The lesson: It’s your fault

Many times, when I contact
someone about plagiarism, they blame a writer or designer they hired. I get it.
You’re busy, you hire someone, they seem legit. Or you use a demotivational
poster and assume it’s OK. Unfortunately, if the plagiarism
attracts the attention of, say, a huge stock photo company, you’re still

Stay out of trouble

Want to reduce your risk? Next
time you get content from a third party:

– Copy one reasonably unique
phrase from the content.

– Search for it on Google in

– Here’s an example for us: I
searched for “SEO is synonymous with ROI in internet marketing” and
got this great result

– Note that some genius even used
that copy on his/her Facebook page. It’d be less work to just write it

– If you’re using an image, use
Google Image Search. You can at least catch obvious plagiarism.

What to avoid

You can also avoid a lot of
headaches by steering clear of this kind of stuff:

– “Automated SEO” tools

– “Blogging automation”

– Anything that includes the words
“automation” or “easy” or “overnight” in the
context of content creation

– Writers who charge $5, unless
you really know they’re legit

– Memes. Many memes use
plagiarized images

– Any images or media where you
can’t identify the sources and get permission

– Anything else that seems too
good to be true

– Detect theft of your

– You can use the cut-and-paste
trick I describe above, or Google Image Search.

– To detect really lazy plagiarists (that’s redundant), give a CSS
file or image file on your site a really unique name. Then search for it
using NerdyData. You would think most people would do more than cut-and-paste your
source code. But they don’t.

If (when) you catch someone else

When you check, chances are
you’ll find a kabillion pages copying you. Here’s what you do:

– Don’t lose your mind and start
spamming them with nasty e-mails. It’s not worth it (trust me, I’ve done it)

– Don’t contact the FBI or other
authorities. It turns out the Interpol has bigger fish to fry

– Decide if they’re worth pursuing

– Check their authority using a
tool like MajesticSEO or OpenSite Explorer

– Check their Social Authority via

– Check their off-web brand and

– If the site seems like an
automated, low-authority turd, ignore them

– If they look like they’re for
real, or are stealing your ideas to compete with you, or might end up
outranking you, proceed

– Contact the site owner. Specify
the page, the text and the page on your site

– Use WHOIS and contact that

– Use the contact us form

– Comment on the blog (always good
for a laugh)

What to say

-Try to avoid e-mails or comments
that being with “Dear Butthead” or similar. Start out polite, or at
least skip the swear words. Specify the page on your site from which they
obtained the copy or idea, and the page on their site that contains the stolen
content or idea.

– Give them 48 hours (no more) to
take down the content.

– If 48 hours pass and they
haven’t taken action, either:

– Get more persistent and tap into
your network to get more folks commenting, e-mailing or otherwise calling out
the plagiarist. Sounds harsh, but it works well, and remember, they stole the stuff

– Wait a little longer. Then hire
a lawyer. I’ve never gotten this far. If you do, think carefully. This is a
major expense and hassle. It needs to be serious theft before it’s worth it

Keep in mind…

-mKeep some perspective. In spite
of my visceral hatred of plagiarism, I’ve learned some (a teeny bit of)

– Plagiarism rarely affects
rankings. I think I’ve seen it happen 2-3 times in 18 years

– Weigh cost/benefit. If some
pathetic business that does everything from build websites to sell copiers is
stealing your content, you might want to let it slide. Chances are they won’t
be around for long anyway

– The internet has made plagiarism
more prevalent. But not necessarily more damaging. If Billy Butthead steals
your entire site, and 4 people visit it, is that real harm? No. Is it illegal?

– Worry when plagiarism could
reach your core audience: Your customers, your colleagues or your readers.
Because that’s theft that dilutes the value of your work product

– A real threat must be more than
a crappy low-ranking site. Otherwise, you could spend the rest of your days
chasing down these yahoos

– As infuriating as plagiarism is,
I wouldn’t call it a world or even business-ending problem. So do as I say, not
as I do: Take a deep breath. Exhale. Remember you don’t get paid for lambasting
plagiarists. Move on if you can.

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