For us writers, it’s an ugly word.
We put in the effort, racking our brains for new ideas. We strive for a fresh and engaging way of expressing them. We publish.
Then someone else is ‘inspired’ by our post to create something so similar it feels like a long-lost sibling. Only without the attendant joy, obviously.
But is it really plagiarism? And what is plagiarism anyway?
Plagiarism is an ethical offence, not a legal one
I defer, as usual to the OED, which defines plagiarism thus:
To take, use and/or pass off the thoughts, writings, inventions etc of another person as one’s own.
The root is a Greek word – plagion – meaning a kidnapping.
Notice that it doesn’t say ‘copy’. Nor is the offence reserved exclusively for taking writing. You can plagiarise someone else’s ideas.
Plagiarism is also an ethical offence, not a legal one. There is no legal remedy.
Disputes of this kind, which are almost always confined to the academic sphere, are settled by academic authorities, not the courts.
This excellent article on the Rights of Writers blog goes into the subject in depth.
Here’s what happened to me
I found myself in this unwelcome situation recently (of the plagiarised, I mean).
I clicked a link in a fellow copywriter’s tweet to a blog post whose title felt familiar.
It managed to reproduce not just the concept but also the structure, content, style, tone and, in some cases, entire phrases, of my post.
So, it passed the first part of the plagiarism test. It took my ideas and writings.
But did it fulfill the second condition, that of passing off my ideas and writings as the author’s own?
I’m afraid the answer is yes. There was no attribution nor was there a backlink
Anyone reading this copywriter’s blog would have assumed that the thinking and writing were theirs, when in fact, as they admitted when I emailed them, they were mine.
It was all me unconscious, guv!
In her defence, the copywriter claimed to have been inspired by me. It was not malicious and happened through a process of unconscious inspiration. This is known as the ‘cryptomnesia’ defence, as referred to in the Rights of Writers post.
She also offered to take the post down. No need for that, I replied. After all, as Charles Caleb Colton remarked, famously, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”.
In this particular case I didn’t feel my reputation or commercial fortunes were damaged by the plagiarism.
I had very little to gain for seeking any sort of remedy. And, to be honest, I don’t think the copywriter was making a conscious decision to profit by stealing my ideas.
You could say that for me, and I consider myself an ethical person, it went against the grain.
I would never do it, and I am disappointed when somebody does it to me.
But what about if it happens to you? What then?
15 steps you should take if you think you’ve been plagiarised
Here are the steps I think you should take if you’re concerned about a potential act of plagiarism.
First, get answers to these seven questions:
1 Is it just about the same subject or is it also taking the same stance?
2 How similar is it in structure? How many of your ideas, or points are reproduced, whether verbatim or not?
3 Are there direct lifts of phrases, sentences or passages?
4 Is there any attribution to you, in the form of credits, attributions backlinks or footnotes?
5 Is the author of the offending post likely to benefit commercially? To what extent?
6 Are you being damaged in any way by the plagiarism (other than wounded pride)?
7 Is the reader being deceived into thinking your ideas or writings are actually those of another? (In other words, do they care who wrote the post?)
The more times you answer yes, the more likely the act is to be plagiarism.
Let’s say you feel you have a case to make. Here are the eight steps you should take next:
8 Remember that unless we are talking about wholesale copying of a work in which you own the copyright (which is a commercial right protected by law) you are unlikely to suffer any great or lasting damage either to your reputation or your business.
9 Proceed from the assumption that the offence was unintentional and motivated (if at all) by naïveté, carelessness or stupidity, and not malice, greed or cunning.
10 Make your initial enquiry privately, by email or phone, NOT social media. Leave both them and you with a back door in case the whole thing is a misunderstanding on your part of theirs.
11 Avoid the P-word, at least for your initial communication. It sounds too much like an accusation.
12 Refer, instead, to ‘similarities’.
13 Include examples of the similarities so the potential plagiarist can see for themselves what you mean.
14 Ask them to get back to you with their ‘thoughts’.
15 Avoid legalese. This includes setting deadlines or anything Dickensian in tone or style.
How much does it all matter, really?
You might decide, regardless of what your fellow writer says, that you don’t sweat the small stuff, and that this is small stuff. That was the approach I took.
On the other hand, you might feel that this is a point of principle. They’re your ideas, let other people come up with their own.
You won’t get money, so don’t ask. You might get an apology, which would be nice.
You might, and I think this is the best outcome, get a credit with a backlink to your original post. Now at least you can share in some if the potential benefits of increased visitors to your site.