A few weeks ago, I wrote a piece about how to protect yourself against accusations of plagiarism. Today I want to look at what you should do if you are the victim of plagiarism. Imagine this: You’re trawling the internet one day and you see one of your articles or blog posts posted on another website. Your byline is missing and there’s no reference back to the website where the original work was posted. Or, you’re reading a book and you notice that one section seems familiar. Then it dawns on you that it’s so familiar because you wrote it. Yet there’s no citation listing you as the author. Yeah, you’ve been plagiarized.
You might have a moment where this makes you secretly happy. In some ways it’s a twisted validation of your work. “Hey, my stuff was good enough to be worth stealing!” But then you get angry. “What right does this person have to use my hard work without compensation or credit?” Answer: Absolutely none. You can let it slide, but the plagiarist will likely just keep stealing. If not from you, from someone else. You need to take action to put a halt to this behavior (or at least make yourself a less attractive target). If you’ve been victimized, here’s what you need to do to uphold your rights.
- Document the plagiarism. This is especially important in cases of online plagiarism where the content in question can be easily removed once the plagiarist senses trouble brewing. Print the page in question (keeping the headers intact), or do a screen capture of the work in question showing the URL. Keep a physical copy of any books or magazines in which your work appears without credit.
- Figure out how much work was stolen. This may be time consuming, but try entering paragraphs from several of your articles into search engines to see if you get any matches. Search through the site where you found the first offense to see if there are any others. Often a plagiarist doesn’t stop with just one piece. If you find your work on multiple domains, do a WHOIS search to determine who owns those domains. It may be that one person owns several websites and is posting your stuff on all of them thinking you won’t connect the dots.
- Figure out who you’re dealing with. Are you dealing with a company, a famous blog, or an individual? If the piece in question has been posted on a large company website or a famous blog, you may have more recourse simply because the company isn’t going to want to have their reputation sullied by accusations of plagiarism. The owners of the website will likely be responsive to your request for compensation and will probably go after the author. At the very least they’ll remove the work in question. If you’re dealing with an individual who simply lifted your stuff for their personal blog, you’re probably dealing with someone who does not have the money to pay out on any claims. The best you may hope for is an apology and the removal of your work. You’ll be lucky to get any other compensation.
- Contact the appropriate person. If your work is posted on a large website or in a book/magazine, you need to contact the publisher, not the author. The author will do nothing to help you and may try to hinder you by reverse-claiming you as the plagiarist. Contact the publisher and demonstrate proof that your work has been stolen. If you’re dealing with an individual, you have no choice but to contact them directly. They may be apologetic, or they may want to fight. You have to decide how hard you’re willing to fight if it comes to that. In either case, send the contact person a cease and desist letter, along with an invoice (if appropriate) and details about what you expect them to do next (remove the content, pay up, stop printing books, etc.). Send all correspondence by certified mail, if you can, since this will provide a record of your contact.
- Figure out what you want. Is it enough that the offending content is simply removed from the site, or do you want monetary compensation? Will a link back to your original article suffice? Do you want the publisher to immediately cease and desist printing books that contain your content? Tell the contact person what remedy you want. If you want to be paid for your work, you can try submitting an invoice with your initial communication demanding your standard fee. Sometimes that’s enough to scare an individual into paying up or at least removing the content.
- Be willing to negotiate. If the person can’t afford to pay you, consider other remedies such as a public apology posted on their site. If the site gets relatively heavy traffic, you can ask that they post a link back to your original site in the apology or in the purloined content. That may bring in enough visitors to act as compensation for your work.
- Go to the web host and/or search engines. If you’re not getting help any other way, report the offender to the company that hosts their website and/or request removal from search engines. Website hosting companies and search engines fear getting sued for hosting stolen content, so they may be willing to help you.
- Lawyer up only as a last resort (and only if it’s worth it). A lawyer is expensive and should only be invoked after everything else has failed. And only if they can do anything for you. If you’re fighting with an individual, the chances are good that you would pay more in legal fees than you could ever recover from the plagiarist. Even if you get them to agree to pay you for the work, that amount will likely pale in comparison to your legal costs. You might make a point, but you have to determine whether making that point is worth it financially to you. If you’re dealing with a company, however, a lawyer may be able to recover significant damages for you. Talk to a reputable attorney and see what they say.
- Keep records. Keep records of any and all contact with the plagiarist or publishers. You’ll need it if you have to escalate your efforts beyond the first contact point, or if you get a lawyer involved and you have to go to court.
- Contact your network. If you have a network of other writers that you know (either online or in real life), alert them to the plagiarism. They may want to check to make sure that your plagiarist isn’t stealing their stuff, too. If several of you are affected by the same plagiarist, you can band together as a group and you may get better results than if you each approach the thief individually. If you want to pursue legal action, splitting the legal fees can make such action a more appealing option than going it alone.
Plagiarism is serious business. Reputable companies and websites will be horrified to learn that they are posting stolen content and will likely do all they can to get it removed and punish the plagiarist. It can be harder to get any resolution from an individual, but it may still be worth it to simply let them know that you know what they’re doing. It may not stop their activities entirely, but they may remove you from their target list.
(Photo courtesy of dave)