Easy access to information online has blurred the lines of plagiarism

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For a dozen years or so, marketers and communicators have been telling businesses that “content is king.” Create content, and readers will come, your footprint will grow, and your brand will gain recognition.

That was all good advice, but the shift of readers becoming writers has also increased plagiarism. And it’s possible your business’s content – on social media, business networking sites, and even your company’s blog – may have been cribbed.

Every day, there are 500 million new tweets, multiple posts added to the 40 million active small business pages on Facebook, and 2 million new blog posts created.

That’s a significant amount of content and, if we’re being honest, we want readers to pass it on: to share it, repost it, and retweet it.

But some things that have become prevalent on social media cross even the loosest of ethical lines. Take LinkedIn profiles, for example.

Many writers, marketers, and HR consultants make a living writing compelling LinkedIn profiles designed to grab the attention of potential clients or employers. But how can you stand out from the crowd when a bunch of other people have the exact same profile? Apparently it’s getting to be an embarrassingly common thing for people to copy and paste elements of other LinkedIn users with the same general business background.

The concept of “engagement” has blurred the lines of authorship, and internet postings often fall into a blurry area called “common knowledge.”

MIT defines common knowledge as “information that the average educated reader would accept as reliable without having to look it up.” While seemingly straightforward, that leaves a great deal open to interpretation. What does “average” mean? What constitutes an “educated reader”? Educated based on whose standard?

Then there’s posting and reposting until the actual originator of an article, graphic, design, or idea is obscured beyond recovery. In many cases, the more your content falls into the realm of “common knowledge,” the more likely you are to lose your claim to it.

That’s what happened to Bayer’s claim on the product trademark “aspirin.” Developed by Bayer and trademarked in 1900, aspirin fell victim to what we now call “genericization”: People started to call any painkiller “aspirin.” By 1921, the trademark could no longer be enforced.

So what can you as a business communicator do to avoid unintentionally plagiarizing others as well as protect your own intellectual property?

Attribute your facts. As one who grew up as a journalist before the internet, I am in awe of how easy information is to find. If you find a great idea that dovetails with your business, share it, but attribute it fully and add a link to the original article.

Paraphrasing doesn’t make it yours. Some pundits on this topic suggest that you paraphrase the creative ideas of others. It’s a slippery slope. Although not as offensive, paraphrasing is still a violation. You need to say in context where the idea or concept originated.

Vigorously protect your content. The internet may have given rise to more ways to steal your words, but it also has facilitated more ways to check. With nearly every written word of the millions produced every day available to search engines, a few sentences enclosed in quotes and searched in Google will find other articles using the same words. If you find someone has taken your content and reposted as their own, contact them and ask them to take it down or to properly attribute it. There are probably few places where any kind of civil or legal action would be worth the effort, but sometimes just letting people know they are caught is enough.

If you have copyrighted your blog or website and find your content has been plagiarized, you may be able to sue in federal court. Plagiarism is not a crime, but theft of intellectual property is.

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