Writing and publishing your thoughts online can be exciting and fun. But once you publish online, it’s writer beware — because plagiarism of our content is common.
Fighting scams and ripoffs of freelance writers is one of my super-passions.
So when I recently discovered two instances where my blog posts were ripped off and republished in their entirety, without payment or permission… you know I was steamed.
At first there was a lot of shock and awe. Is this really happening? But when that wore off, I realized I needed to figure out an action plan to claim what’s rightfully mine.
Fortunately, there are actions you can take when you discover plagiarism.
Here’s the story of what recently happened to me, and what steps you can take if you discover you’ve been ripped off.
Before you can defend your content, you need to understand your rights to that content.
- Your published online writing is copyrighted, whether or not you put a copyright notice on your blog, or send copies of your posts to the Library of Congress and officially register your copyright.
- Copyright attaches at the moment of publication. Your post has a date stamp on it that proves you were the first one to create and publish it.
So don’t feel like you can’t go after plagiarizers, if you haven’t done the official paperwork. It’s still your content, and it’s still being used without your permission. And that’s not OK.
How to know if your content is stolen
I know many writers who are super-paranoid about getting ripped off, but who have only a dim idea of how to know if it’s happening.
Here are a few popular ways to detect plagiarism:
Google Alerts and more
One easy thing to do is set up a regular search for your own name. Google Alerts is a great free tool for this.
You can set your tool to send you weekly or even daily alerts when you’re mentioned — often a simple way to see a post with your byline or tagline has been reproduced somewhere new.
At this point, my team is using a paid level of SEMRush for brand monitoring.
This popular plagiarism checker isn’t just used by low-grade content mills and cheapskate clients to make sure you’re not copying others’ posts. It’s a tool you can use to see if your content is reappearing elsewhere.
For this post, I ran a quick, free check on my content on Copyscape, and came up with this result:
This might look alarming, but in fact all these links checked out as OK. That top one is just my own feed on my Amazon author profile. The essay site seemed to have already deleted my content.
- The Story Reading Ape blog had cited my post the right way — publishing just a couple of the top paragraphs, and then linking readers to the full post back on my blog. Thanks for understanding Fair Use, Chris!
The other links Copyscape found similarly checked out as OK.
So how did I find out I was being ripped off?
Strong backlinks mean more monitoring
You may know it’s a good blogging practice to include outbound links in your posts to other authoritative sites.
- Why? Besides building your blog’s reputation by associating with popular places, it means others may spot illegal reproduction of your content through their own brand monitoring.
In both my cases, people who I had linked to in my posts were doing their own scanning for mentions of their name or site. And they turned up strange new links — from places that were reproducing my post that had their link. Then, they let me know about it.
Both of these plagiarizing sites used a feed to easily republish my blog posts. Here’s how that works…
When feeds republish your content
Remember feeds? Many of us used to drag bunches of these onto our desktop or a browser, to quickly scan sites and newsletters we liked.
But that was the ’00s. Around then, feeds sort of died, for that purpose, anyway.
These days, apparently, feeds are a popular way to illegally import others’ content onto a website and pass it off as you own.
The first plagiarizer I learned about — who operates an odd, self-named e-commerce and writing website — had taken all this one step further. (Not linking to these sites, as I don’t want to give them any link juice.)
- Writer beware…Under ‘author’ on each post, my name or my editor’s had been erased, and this operator had entered his own name instead.
Using a feed to change authorship
How was this ripoff artist changing the linked author bio on each post?
He used his feed tool, WordPress eMatico, which apparently makes it quick and simple to change the ‘author’ line on an incoming feed to his own name. (WP did not respond to my questions about why their tool provides a feature that makes it easy to erase rightful authors’ names.)
- The upshot is that each time I published a new post, a new post would appear on this shopping website. Except on his site, it would say the author of my content was…him.
Funnily enough, though he took the time to erase my authorship and claim my content as words he had written, he didn’t remove any internal links to:
- Other Make a Living Writing blog posts
- Taglines, or
- Bottom ad banners.
So it was at least still promoting my stuff. On a garbage site. Cold comfort indeed.
Fighting internet crime?
The second plagiarizer was even more of a laugh riot. That’s because his site purported to be about fighting internet crime. I believe the focus was exploited children online. They were soliciting donations on the site with this donation box:
This site is operated by someone who lists several advanced degrees after their name on their LinkedIn profile. I’d like to also award him an honorary PhD in copyright infringement.
Despite his supposed mission to fight internet crime, the owner had no problem grabbing a feed and throwing my content on his site without payment or permission.
For a bonus, his site made my posts look like junk. Here’s a screen shot — you can see the weird double-graphic look the feed produces:
Clearly, both of these clowns needed to be asked to stop reprinting my posts.
What do you say to someone who’s ripping you off?
I believe you get fastest results by keeping it polite, and assuming they’re plagiarizing out of ignorance rather than malice. I’ve found that’s usually the case.
What to say to plagiarizers
Obviously, it’s easy to be super-steamed and to snap off at plagiarizing site owners. But I recommend keeping it straightforward.
In both my recent cases, InMail turned out to be the easiest method of contact — as with many spammy sites, there was no obvious contact email posted.
Here’s what I wrote (in what is known in legalese as my ‘cease and desist’ letter):
Hi NAME —
Your site [URL] is illegally reproducing a ton of my blog content. I don’t allow reprints of my content, even with pay. Please remove it all immediately and notify me when it’s been taken down. Otherwise, I’ll be taking action to see your site removed from the internet.
Don’t reproduce others’ content without permission — doesn’t help your brand.
Respond ASAP —
(If you’d like an example of another, more sarcastic and possibly emotionally satisfying approach to asking plagiarizers to cut it out, check out this epic response from a partner of digital agency Orbit Media.)
The plagiarizer’s response
In the case of the name-changer who claimed authorship of my posts, I quickly received an apologetic note that basically blamed his WP feed tool for making it easy to change the authorship line.
- Him: “It defaulted to my name,” he wrote. He insisted this was ‘unintentional.’
- Me: I told him I found it disingenuous to claim he was accidentally claiming authorship of my content. But thanked him for removing my feed from his site.
The PhD guy never responded to me — but a week or so later, my content vanished from his site. Good enough.
The key thing is to expend as little mental energy on resolving these situations as possible. Your brain is better used creating more great content.
4 actions to take if plagiarism persists
So far in my decade-plus of blogging, I’ve had 100% cooperation with site owners removing plagiarized content when politely asked. But what if the scammer keeps on ripping you off?
Then it’s time to go to DEFCON 4 with more aggressive moves. These can include:
1. Social shaming
You may get quick results by taking to Facebook or Twitter and posting/tweeting on their page or to their handle, asking when your illegally reproduced content will be removed:
.@company – you are illegally reproducing my content. Please stop the copyright infringement and LMK when you have removed my content from your site.
No site wants something floating around social media like that without responding and showing what a good person they are. So this tends to wrap it up quick.
2. Go for the takedown
I consider this the best option. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) protects your content from plagiarism. If the problem persists, you can get the web host to be your muscle, and to take down the offending site.
- Find the site’s web host with a free lookup tool such as WhoIsHostingThis or Hosting Checker.
- Send a written request to the host that the site be taken down. (Here’s a sample template from the legal eagles at Nolo.com — and some hosts offer their own template, too.)
If the website doesn’t promptly comply with the request to take down the infringed material, its web host will likely remove the entire site. (Sweet, eh?) More details on this option and how it works are available at the DMCA website.
3. Go tell on them to Google
It’s rare that this would happen, because most sites that plagiarize are total junk and don’t appear high up in search results.
But if you found a plagiarized version of your content ranks well in Google search results, you can notify Google that it’s an illegal copy, and seek to have it spiked from the rankings.
I’m not a fan, but a crime is being committed. Suing someone is incredibly emotionally and financially draining, so carefully weigh the pros and cons before taking this ultimate step. Usually, it shouldn’t be necessary.
Writer beware — but don’t be paranoid
Hopefully, this primer has shown you that there are responses and remedies available to you, if your online content is copied. And that most people who plagiarize do so because they don’t know any better, and they’ll stop if you ask them.
I’ve known writers who went down a drain of worry and fear about being ripped off — so they end up not publishing. Don’t be that writer.
Remember, even if you are ripped off, you have a powerful weapon at your disposal: your brain. It’s always better to keep creating more great content than to spend tons of your precious time trying to stop plagiarists.
Have you been plagiarized online? Tell us about what happened, and what you did, in the comments.