This morning I learned that one of the worst things that can happen to a writer happened to me. I was plagiarized. My hard work was taken without permission from me or the site I wrote for. It was posted on another site and passed off as being written by someone else. However, before I continue I want to take a moment to define plagiarism:
Plagiarism - an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author's work as one's own, as by not crediting the original author.*
*definition from http://www.dictionary.com
See what I did there with the *? That’s called crediting the source. If you are going to use word for word, paraphrase or slightly rework something some one else wrote, then it is imperative that you give a source. It’s even better if you check with that source and get permission before using it, but always credit the source. It’s as simple as that. This however is not how things happened for me.
As many of you know, over the past few months I’ve been writing for an online news site that posts articles and editorials on the latest movies and TV shows. In the recent weeks, the site I write for discovered that another online TV and movie site took not one, but dozens of articles, slightly reworked them, posted them on their site without permission or citation and passed them off as their own work. When I initially heard this, I was extremely angry and it wasn’t even my articles that had been stolen. Without ever experiencing it prior, I knew having your work stolen is heartbreaking.
After today I can now say I know exactly how it feels and heartbreaking doesn’t even begin to cover it. This morning I woke up to a tweet that said (and out of respect for the person that runs the site I work for and the site that has been stealing I will not cite names.) “By the way XXX site ripped off one of your articles too. I thought you should know.” After reading that comment I was a bit taken back, one because I just woke up and two because I was completely shocked that it happened to me. I couldn’t even spell plagiarism and I haven’t even had the “pleasure” of being rejected by editors or agents, so how was my work being stolen? The site stealing the work is a much larger site than the one I write for, so why would they need to steal from someone else? Maybe they were looking for fresh ideas or one of the writers really didn’t know what they were doing was wrong. Whatever the reason, what they did was stealing and I was crushed.
After the swirling questions and emotions, I decided I wanted to see for myself. Not that I don’t trust the person who told me, because I do 100%, but because I needed to confirm with my own eyes. So I logged on to the offending site and began to scour their lists of articles. Nothing recognizable for pages until….. oh wow that title, and supporting image looks awfully familiar. I clicked on the article and my heart sank into my feet. It probably would have fallen into my downstairs neighbor’s apartment if there wasn’t solid flooring below me. Right there before my eyes was my article down to some of the exact pictures and formatting with a slight twist of words. And the stake to the heart was seeing that the author’s name, picture and bio at the bottom of the article did not belong to me. This was an article that I spent weeks toiling and agonizing over and finally perfecting until it was just right. One of the most difficult articles I ever compiled and wrote was stolen, badly rewritten and said to be authored by someone else. I couldn’t believe my eyes.
After I picked up my jaw off my desk, I wanted to start hurling things and write nasty comments like This is a great article but I liked it even better when I wrote it. But I stopped and took a deep breath before I burst into tears or spontaneously self combusted.
When I finally wrapped my head around what happened, I started to wonder what one does when this sort of thing happens. And after some careful consideration, I came up with the following list:
- Take a deep breath: It’s first important to realize that although this is a horrible thing that happened to you, you are not alone. There are some things you can do about it even if you feel powerless and broken.
- Do not act out of anger: Acting on extreme emotion will only make the situation worse and could mean that you lose all chance of remedying the situation. So think long and hard before you submit that nasty comment, email, or even facebook, twitter, or blog post trying to defame the offender. Professionalism is key.
- Document: Take screen shots or copies of every instance of plagiarism. If it is a website, don’t rely on the link of a site in case the site is later taken down but do make sure the link is visible in your screen shots. Then gather your work that was plagiarized and if possible show proof of dates your work was written. You will want evidence of every instance of plagiarism and copies of your work to compare, to ultimately prove that your work was stolen.
- If you are working with an agent, editor, company, or site owner, contact them and send your evidence. Unless they ask for more information or ask you to do something specific, let them handle it.
- If you are independent, try contacting the author of the offending article, with a professionally written email informing them that they have copied content that does not belong to them and ask that they either remove the content or credit you as the source. Do not get angry, it’s possible that it was just a case that they forgot or didn’t know. If you receive a reply back saying they will comply and they do, then your work is done, but if not see the next step.
- If you are ignored or the person does not act appropriately, try contacting the manager, site owner, or person in charge of the overall content with a similar professionally written email informing them of the copied content. Provide your proof, and information about your correspondence with the author of the article. Again be calm and polite, the owner or manager may not even be aware of the issue and if that is the case they may not be at fault. They can however take action and if they do deal with the issue then you are done.
- But if you are again ignored or met with any other response than compliance, then it’s time to make a decision. Do you let it go or continue on with this? If this is something you decide you want to pursue further, you will probably want to seek out legal representation. Although expensive, they will have more advice and know the laws. They can help draft a formal cease and desist letter or seek further action.
While plagiarism is a horrible thing, in a weird sort of way, I am a little bit flattered. If someone stole my work it is probably because they liked it enough to try and pass it off as their own. While that doesn't make it right and I’m still very angry about the whole situation, I’ve learned a lot from this experience. You are not immune to the horrible things that can happen to a writer, even if you are new to writing, and/or unpublished. But you are not powerless to the situation either. You can choose to let the anger and sadness of the situation overtake you or choose to rise above it and be the bigger person, by dealing with the situation in a professional manner. Although my case is not fully resolved, I know that this is not going to destroy me as a writer. I am merely choosing to take the backhanded compliment and keep writing in the future, working even harder than before.