Plagiarising the Whatever

A question from e-mail:

I would be interested in reading about your experiences with people who plagiarize your entries to the Whatever. I’ve been reading a few other bloggers who are dealing with the issue and I’d just like to see how this has been with you and your blog.

To be honest, I can’t think of a situation where I think someone’s plagiarised a Whatever entry. There have been a couple of times when people have cut-and-pasted an entire entry of mine into their own blogspace, most notably with the “Being Poor” entry, but even in those instances they’ve usually linked back either to me or to the place where they originally found the entry. That’s not plagiarism, because there’s no attempt to hide the fact they didn’t write it. It is a massive copyright violation — no interpretation of fair use includes a simple cut-and-paste of an entire entry — but generally speaking I find it difficult to care if some random dude does a cut-and-paste onto his personal site, particularly if he links back.

Also, here’s the thing: The couple of times where someone has cut-and-pasted something I wrote into their blog without attribution, someone has popped up in the comments and said “hey, John Scalzi wrote that. You should credit him.” And then — pop — up comes the attribution. No, those commenters are not me working through a sock puppet. It’s simply that enough people read my stuff online that people recognize what I’ve written, even if it’s on someone else’s site.

In a larger sense I don’t think there’s much incentive to plagiarize online, anyway. 99% of plagiarism as far as I can see comes primarily out of two desires: To make one’s self look smart to friends, and to get a good grade while avoiding actual work. Well, people generally aren’t being graded on their blogs and journals, and the blogosphere’s value system is such that you get almost as much credit for finding something smart and clever and sharing it with your friends as you would for writing something smart and clever. Most people are content to excerpt and link, and of course I am pleased when they do.

Off the Internet, it’s possible that kids are plagiarising my Whatever entries for school papers or whatever, but I don’t know how much of a good idea that is. My site is regularly spidered by Turnitin.com and other plagiarism-detection services, so anyone who copies something I write wholesale into their own paper stands a good chance of being caught if their professor uses any of these services. So kids: Don’t. Just don’t. Cite me and put the URL in a footnote. It keeps you from having to explain why you suddenly write like a 37-year-old shut-in living in rural America.

Students aren’t the only plagiarists, of course; sometimes pro writers and authors will nip in a few passesages from other favorite writers here and there, because of deadlines or stress or whatever excuse seems most convenient at the time. As far as I know, no one has yet attempted this with me. I am occasionally quoted by newspaper columnists (the Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn does this from time to time), but being quoted is nice and good, and I’m happy when it happens. But wholesale lifting of work? Nope. Not that I know about. If it were to happen, my first inclination would be to contact the writer and give them a chance to “correct” their lack of attribution rather than report them to their bosses. If they got all snotty about it, then there would be trouble. But generally speaking I’m not in a rush to end someone’s career because they did something that is stupid but probably harmless. Call me a softie.

As far as I know, I have not myself plagiarised anyone. But I have been drinking a lot of cough syrup recently. And I have deadlines. And I’m under a lot of strees. I could do it any time now. I apologize in advance for my possible future plagiarising misdeeds.

21 thoughts on “Plagiarising the Whatever

  1. Look out for my upcoming novels, John: Agent On The Skis, The Ham-Droid’s Dream and Old Fans War!

    True enough, though, it’s easy to over-react and tag what is effectively free marketing (of the viral sort) as plagiarism.

  2. You missed what’s probably the most common case of ‘plaigarism’ from blogs on the web. Fake blogs comprised entirely of posts copied (without attribution) from more prominent blogs.

    In a way it’s similar to getting a good grade while avoiding hard work, though these sites usually go for things like ad revenue more than for grades (Unless you consider income to be like grades on real life).

    Having real content, from blogs people actually read, both makes it harder to be detected automatically, and increases the chance people will get there from search engines and may pay attention or click an ad.

  3. Yeah, but that’s not actual plagiarism, is it? It’s just some bot running around looking for keyword and posting entries with the keyword indiscriminately in a blog space. Plagiarism is at least partly about intent, in my book.

  4. Well, if you plagiarize anything of mine, it’ll probably piss me off more that you’ll get WAY more traffic for my drivel than I do!

  5. Haha… Those bots are funny. I posted an entry about my cat, some Fancy Feast cat food and my kitchen, and I wound up winning some sort of Recipe of the Day.

    -Dan

  6. Here’s a Boston Globe article on Blog plagiarism. Apparently it happens mostly to ‘mid-list’ bloggers. Talented enough to write posts interesting enough to plagiarize, but not popular enough that the plagiarist is likely to get caught.

  7. How odd. I had that once. I was trying to remember the name of a story I’d written and posted to a public access website. I searched on a line that I recalled, and found the story twice. Once where I’d posted it and once on a website I’d never heard of. It was a key word issue, there were tons of blog posts and the like on there all around the subject of high-heeled shoes, which happened to be mentioned in the first sentence of my piece. I’d wondered what the hell that was about. :)

  8. We had something similar to this happen to us, just over five years ago. Pictures of our newborn son were referenced from another site (not copied and saved, or we would never have known).

    It was a site in German, ostensibly about a family’s newborn son there. There were pictures from about a dozen webpages around the world, with all the people relabled as this baby’s extended family.

    We deleted the pictures that had been linked, notified the ISP, and contacted the other families involved. (One of them turned out to be an FBI agent, but that’s another story.) The site was taken down, and we tweaked our photo hosting.

    We’re on Flickr now, and I suppose someone could do it again, but there are so many people on Flickr that we probably vanish into the mob.

    Still…creepy.

  9. I think plagiarism may be more prevalent than you think, as even I’ve been plagiarized at least twice. And I don’t consider myself a “mid list blogger.” If you consider the internet as a food chain, I’m a diatom.

    There are people who will steal other’s LiveJournal posts, pretending that someone else’s life is their own. How pathetic. But the currency of the net isn’t always about money from adclicks or good grades on a paper. For low-level bloggers, just getting hits is ego-boost enough.

    Exactly how one’s ego gets boosted when you’ve stolen someone else’s writing–well, that I don’t get.

  10. On some levels it would be a compliment that you were plagiarized… that you’re worthy of being plagiarized, like Elaine Benes on Seinfeld selecting men who are sponge-worthy. (I think the analogy still works even though permission has been granted in the case of consensual sex. Consensual sex is like being footnoted?) Anyway, it’s sort of like if someone name-dropped your own name.

  11. I would not even consider myself a midlist blogger, and I have had posts copied by those blogbot things. I once was ranting about the cable being out because I was trying to post something for grad school, and I ended up plastered on a blog advertising various “work from home” scams.

    I am mildly offended by it, now that I think about it. Because I hate scammers, spammers, and all their ilk.

  12. Andrew:

    I had to Google DailyKos. Are you suprised? This is what Google said:

    “Daily KosDaily weblog with political analysis on US current events from a liberal perspective.
    http://www.dailykos.com/

    Hilarious. LOL. Good one, bro.

    Incidentally, if you were alluding to the bill debate, I never said if I was for or against it.

  13. Brad: I wasn’t actually replying to your post , My befuddled mind vaugley remembers John being plagarized in one of the Daily Diaries.

    Any humour is purely , um , serendipitous.

  14. Out of curiosity, now that this post has itself been “plagiarised”, I ran a quick search.
    As of now Google, Feedster, and Sphere still only show this post.
    Technorati shows both.
    Bloglines/Ask show… well, only Jim Winter’s copy. They do have it listed twice, though. But one is an older copy with a now retired title, so they’ll probably remove it eventually.

    BTW, John, I’m not entirely sure excluding bots based on intent is a sensible outlook. The bots obviously don’t intend to do anything. But the person opening the fake blogs, and running the bots, do.
    So until those bots are recognized as sentient AIs, they’re just tools. Saying they don’t have any intent is akin to saying, for something you would accept as true plagiarism, that it’s not plagiarism because the web browser, clipboard, and word processor involved didn’t intentionally do anything wrong either.

  15. Yaron:

    “BTW, John, I’m not entirely sure excluding bots based on intent is a sensible outlook. The bots obviously don’t intend to do anything. But the person opening the fake blogs, and running the bots, do.”

    I suppose, but I would still say there’s a difference between programming a bot to look for anything with a certain keyword only so that your fake blog shows up on Google searches, and snatching text from someone else and passing it off on your own because one has made a contextual and qualitative decision about the text itself. I doubt the guy who is doing the keyword harvesting is thinking “wow, this piece is good and it has the keyword I want! I’ll take it!” Given the nature of these blogs, that would require too much work.

  16. John:

    I doubt the guy who is doing the keyword harvesting is thinking “wow, this piece is good and it has the keyword I want! I’ll take it!” Given the nature of these blogs, that would require too much work.

    Partially. From various complaints and discussions of the issue I read in the past, it seems that in many cases the people behind it manually pick the blogs they want occasional posts taken from.
    Or decide other proxy criteria for popularity to target the bots better.

    The way I see it as long as there was intent to take material written by someone else, without attribution, that’s plagiarism.
    Leaving totally non-targeted bots stretches the definition, I agree, but if they’re even partially targeted then it should still count.

    Say you were, as an example, editing an SF magazine, and notice a short story there that you know was actually written years ago by someone else. Would you not call the submission plagiarism if the submitter would later confess that while they indeed copied it, they didn’t target that story specifically but randomly picked it from a book in a popular series of short-stories collections?

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