Risky Content: The Thin Line Between Inspiration And Plagiarism

With the growth in content marketing comes a growth in the number of people stealing content to use online. Keep your business out of hot water with these 6 guidelines.
November 06, 2013

Content marketing is one of the best ways for small businesses to increase their branding online, create loyal customers, invoke trust, grow website traffic and build an overall Web presence. It is also cost-effective and, when done right, can guarantee returns on your marketing dollar.

With so many benefits, it’s no wonder that content marketing has exploded. But there’s an ugly underside to this online marketing method.

Some writers create original content that uses other sources for inspiration or to back up certain points. Unfortunately, it's another thing altogether when that "inspiration" amounts to stealing.

Crossing The Line

With the upsurge in online marketing, it has become an epidemic of "inspiration" out there—to the point that small businesses need to be aware of how they may be at risk. Let's look at four situations that can cause your small business headaches and trouble:

1. Your website content gets stolen. It's become all too common for others to find online content written by others, change a few words, and post it as their own. That's especially true for blog content. There’s even a name for it: article spinning, which Wikipedia describes as “Spinning works by rewriting existing articles, or parts of articles, and replacing specific words, phrases, sentences, or even entire paragraphs with any number of alternate versions to provide a slightly different variation with each spin. This process can be completely automated or rewritten manually.”

2. Unscrupulous freelance writers deliver stolen content to you without you realizing it. Don’t get me wrong: I'm sure most freelance writers are ethical, committed to their craft and have high standards. Those aren’t the ones you have to worry about.

The ones you do have to worry about are the people who've made it their specialty to spin other people’s content. How else do you think so-called professional writers can afford to write articles for $5?

These “writers” (and I use the term loosely) will proudly tell you that their content passes Copyscape testing. Copyscape.com is a tool that will search the Web and find content that's duplicated in whole or in part. However, Copyscape is not infallible. Articles can pass Copyscape scans, but when you compare two articles side by side, you can see that one article is a blatant rewrite of  the other. 

Not long ago on social media, I spotted a link to an article with an unusual title that sounded suspiciously like one I'd written a month earlier. Comparing the two, it turns out the article was a point-for-point rewrite of my earlier article. When I contacted the person who published it on her blog and asked why she'd taken my article, she apologized profusely. It turns out, she'd hired someone from a blogger job board to ghost write for her, and that person had spun my article into a new one. The freelancer’s defense to her? “It passed Copyscape.” After apologizing, the business owner took the article down. I accepted the apology—clearly it was an embarrassing moment for her, as well as a waste of her time and hard-earned money.  

3. Guest contributors to your blog submit plagiarized content without your knowledge. A friend of mine told me about a guest contributor to his blog who'd been contributing “spun” articles that he passed off as original works. The original author of one such article alerted my friend when he spotted one of his own articles that had been “borrowed” in this way. My friend ended up taking down all the contributor's articles and revoking publishing privileges for that contributor because he no longer trusted him or any of his content. 

As a blog owner, you must be proactive in making sure you can trust your guest contributors. Be especially careful of any articles that come to you “over the transom”—free content for your blog could end up causing you extra work and hurt your reputation if it turns out an article was plagiarized.

4. One of your employees grabs an image off the Web without permission. I get it—it’s a neat image. Maybe it’s humorous or clever. Your summer intern who’s keeping the blog updated sees it shared as a thumbnail on Facebook or through a search in Google and copies the image for a post she's writing. It then appears in a carefully written, all-original blog post on your blog. The intern is even careful to give credit for the image to the original article it came from.  

The only problem is, using that image is stealing. You find out about it six months later when you get a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) takedown notice or you're presented with a $5,000 invoice for royalties for using that image. Think I’m exaggerating? It has happened before. Many times.

Defensive Measures

You can protect your business by taking the following steps to avoid stepping over the line:

1. Never write with someone else’s article open in front of you. Without even realizing it, you may end up creating something that's too similar. Compose only on a blank screen or sheet of paper.

2. Hire qualified freelance writers you can trust. Don’t hire writers from sites where people are offering to do tasks for very small amounts of money. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. And be careful when writers advertise that their articles “pass Copyscape.” That may be meant as a guarantee of originality, but it could also be a tacit admission of content theft. Dig deeper before hiring them to work for you.

3. Vet guest contributors carefully. Carefully check out anyone who wants to contribute to your blog. They should have some expertise about what they're writing. Someone with “expert” articles about silversmithing, how to cure diabetes or perfecting your shot-put technique isn't usually writing from personal knowledge. Even worse, they're probably writing under a pseudonym. They have no reputation to lose, so why would they care if they're caught plagiarizing?  

4. Run all content written by third parties through Copyscape. Copyscape is a good tool—just remember, it has its limits. Still, it does help flag some instances of plagiarism quickly and inexpensively.

5. If you see your content has been stolen, consider filing a DMCA takedown notice. There's a procedure under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act where you can demand that content be taken down if it's been used without authorization. Consult your attorney for advice before taking action.

6. Train your staff on copyrights and the proper use of images. There’s a fine line between sharing image-based content and using copyrighted images without permission. Make sure your employees know proper copyright practices. Some businesses make it their policy to only use images on their site or in marketing that they've purchased the rights to. Be especially careful if you're using images with Creative Commons licenses: What’s to say the license holder won’t change their mind later and modify the license to a full copyright? How will you ever prove it? Consult your company attorney for guidelines.

Always inquire and investigate before assuming any content is original or that you have the right to use it. By being vigilant and doing your due diligence, you can protect your business.

Read more articles on online marketing.

Photo: iStockphoto