In the age of digital media, issues surrounding intellectual property are becoming messier, as demonstrated in David Fincher’s fabulous film, The Social Network. For writers, this issue definitely hits home: as we struggle to make a living by selling our content to publications, it’s becoming increasingly easier for companies and websites to copy our words and reclaim them as their own under the banner of “information sharing.”
However, there’s a fine line between plagiarism and information sharing, and it’s up to editors and website managers to understand the difference. If they fail to make this distinction, content thieves may find themselves faced with a myriad of lawsuits from bloggers and journalists seeking to protect their work.
“Information sharing” is blanket term used to convey the dissemination of information across the internet. Information sharing is a perfectly acceptable and legitimate way of sharing the cool articles, ideas, and pictures you find on the internet. So, for example, if you read this article, and then share it on your Facebook page or through your Twitter account, this qualifies as “information sharing” because you’re gesturing to the original space and author that produced the work rather than claiming it as you own.
“Plagiarism,” on the other hand, isn’t cool, and is quite different than information sharing. According to the University of Toronto’s Code of Behavior on Academic Matters, plagiarism is “the representation of another’s ideas or expressions as your own.” So, for example, if you copied this entire article and posted it on your blog without referencing me or The Social Times, you’re committing plagiarism.
Last week, The Social Times team discovered that a certain someone – who will remain nameless – was pulling our content and passing it off as his own. This means he was literally copying our articles in their entirety and pasting them onto his blog, writing “by John Smith” (not his real name).
As writers, we make a living off our words and ideas. We spend hours, sometimes days lamenting over whether or not to use a comma or a semicolon; language is our art, and we’ve invested lots of time and money studying it. If you steal our words, you rob us of our livelihood. What’s more, you damage the arts in unimaginable ways, forcing more writers out of work and encouraging copying rather than originality.
When we found the plagiarized articles, we tracked down the thief and phoned him, telling him to cease and desist. Rather than admitting his fault, the plagiarist claimed he was simply “sharing information.” After arguing for some time, it became clear to us that this man had no idea what the difference is between plagiarism and information sharing. He genuinely had no idea that he was stealing. Our plagiarist, like many others across the internet, didn’t understand the difference between crediting an original source and passing off something as your own.
In the court of law, ignorance is no defense. Once I’d explained the difference to the thief, he sent me an apology note with a postal script reading “I am very sorry, and for what it’s worth, you’re a great writer.”
I’ll tell you what it’s worth Mr. Plagiarist: it’s worth approximately $50,000, as that’s the going rate for a master’s degree in English Literature.
Image via Beyond the Classroom