The Paradigms of Plagiarism

Bob Leggitt | Tuesday, 3 January 2012 |

This is a subject I’ve found fascinating for many years. Even before the Internet became such an indispensable part of our lives, creative people feared the prospect of someone coming along and plagiarising their best ideas, then making enormous quantities of cash out of them.

Plagiarism of photos is one of the most common types of online content theft. This highly unusual image is my own, but many bloggers simply take pics from Google Images and add them to posts without attribution, as if they're their own. Sadly, the Internet is set up to trivialise and encourage this type of plagiarism.

Plagiarism is very real – that’s undeniable. Only a small percentage of people are truly able to create fresh and exciting concepts, and genuinely throw a new perspective onto a subject, a product, a brand of music, or whatever. So it’s only to be expected that those less able to conceptualise and invent will copy those who are more able. Indeed, almost all of what we see in the commercial world is copied. Manufacturers may tell us that their offerings are completely different from anything else, but usually, that’s anything but true. One car, for example, looks, sounds and performs much the same as the next, and will employ broadly similar technology. That’s not because all manufacturers had exactly the same set of ideas at the same time. It’s because they all copy each other. One has a good idea, and the rest copy it, bringing about a homogenised picture which is only really made to appear varied through gimmickry and clever marketing.

Move into the virtual world and things are no different. Get hold of an image editing suite, for example, and it will almost invariably be built around the basic algorithms of a 1990s Photoshop package. Even the layout will frequently be the same. “Why expend a massive amount of time and mental energy inventing something from the ground up when you can get away with copying a tried and tested formula and merely tweaking it a little?” That’s the ethos. Of course, if you’re an artist (and I use the term in the widest sense to cover all forms of creative expression), then you may feel uncomfortable copying, and fail to see a project as worthwhile unless you’ve done something new, of your own. But if so, you’re in the minority. Most people can’t be revolutionary. They have to copy to at least some extent. So how vulnerable are you and your original work to this endless crowd of vultures waiting to grab anything with high commercial potential and pass it off as their own?

Back in my teens, I remember one of our band’s support acts had a guitarist who turned his back when playing a solo. I doubt it was because he was shy. My guess is that he didn’t want other guitarists to see how he played his solos, and copy them. But if that was the case, was he right to be so unusually guarded? 

Well, what he may not have realised, was that I, along with the other guitarist in our band, could play by ear. We didn’t need to see the guy’s fingers fret the notes. We knew how to play what he was playing merely by listening to it. And guess what… Neither of us stole his solos, or took the essence of them and created our own slightly revised versions. Why? Because we didn’t care enough about them to bother. There were thousands and thousands of great guitar solos for us to use as inspiration – many of them by seminal artists who’d inspired us to pick up guitars in the first place. Why, in the light of that, would we choose to plagiarise the work of an unsigned artist, in a support band, further down the bill than we were?

And there lies the essence of targeted plagiarism. The less successful an idea or a piece of work, the less likely it is that anyone will want specifically to copy it. Most of us care very intensely about our own creations, and that can lend our work an inflated sense of importance – in our eyes. But usually, unless we’re already pretty successful, what we create is nowhere near as important in the grand scheme of things as we believe. And to someone who’s looking to plagiarise specific, targeted material, it’s probably off the radar. 

There is, however, another type of plagiarism, which is done on a far less specific basis. This is common in the online world. ‘Scraping’, for example, entails individuals automatically finding and taking existing content, and re-posting it on their own monetised or semi-monetised sites as part of a ‘get rich quick’ plan. Sometimes the work is posted with attribution, and sometimes not. Almost invariably, ‘scrapers’ will use a bot to locate and snatch the content, so it’s a very impersonal process, upon which the real talent of the original writer has little, if any bearing. The ‘scrapers’ just want content that matches their site criteria. They’re not nicking your work because they fell in love with it. In fact they’re not really nicking your work at all. They’re nicking anyone’s work, because it’s there, and because their bot decided it was the best match with the criteria they set.

Yet another facet of plagiarism is the kind of culturally-ingrained copying, prominent on Twitter. In fact, so culturally-ingrained has this brand of content theft become, that I doubt some would even describe it as plagiarism – merely the ‘retweeting’ of someone else’s work, with a convenient failure to acknowledge the source. In relation to this, I’ve been looking at someone’s tweets over a period of time. It’s someone I know of, from I forum I’ve used. A while back I started to notice him coining numerous funny, witty and clever lines – many of which looked like they’d come from professional comedians or writers. So I did a Google search on a couple of the lines, and guess what… they weren’t his. They were word for word copies of existing quotes or lines. The guy hadn’t credited the sources, or even enclosed the lines in speech marks to indicate that he was quoting someone else. He’d simply lifted the phrases, and tweeted them, as his own.

What surprised me was that he didn’t do it on the forum. Only on Twitter. And that persuaded me that there was a different attitude on Twitter. A feeling that something which would be frowned upon in other online envirnoments, was okay on Twitter, because it was Twitter. I began to wonder about the integrity of other ‘quote gurus’ I’d seen on Twitter – especially some with much higher profiles than the forum guy. It didn’t take much investigation to establish that the policy of tweeting existing content with no acknowledgement is virtually a free-for-all in some circles.

But interestingly, the cool but stolen lines tweeted four or five times a day by the forum guy didn’t benefit him in any way. He didn’t make any significant gain in followers, and in fact at one point his following even went down. I think that’s one of the less obvious problems plagiarists have to face: people do generally see through them. There’s a personality and a style to the way everyone writes, and that creates a co-ordinated, unified feel which persuades the reader that everything’s above board. Plagiarists don’t have that co-ordinated aura to their work, because it’s almost invariably coming from multiple sources. It just looks wrong. It looks, to warp an age-old phrase, like content that’s fallen off the back of a lorry.

Drop onto a ‘scraper’s website, and in most cases it’ll be obvious straight away there’s no point in ever returning. It’s disjointed. People can tell it’s just a collage of random findings, and they’re not interested. That may have been why the forum guy started to lose followers on Twitter. He'd ceased to be a person, and become a delivery service.

Looking at things from the other side of the issue of course, none of us is completely original. Chances are, that incredible work of genius you feel so protective about is 90% or more influenced by third parties. I’m very proud of the fact that I write my own articles. But I’m not blind to the fact that other people have influenced me through the course of my life. When I see or hear something very similar to material I’ve produced, the first possibility I consider is that the person who posted the content has the same influences as me, and has independently arrived in the same ballpark. Obviously if it’s just a load of word-for-word cut-and-paste, that’s a different matter, but it’s very common for people to have the same idea independently of each other, and it’s good to bear that in mind when assessing whether or not any plagiarism has taken place.

In the end, I believe that unless you’ve demonstrated significant success, other people will think they have better ideas than you, even if they don’t. That’s just the way the human ego works. Why would someone who thinks his/her own ideas are better than yours, copy you? And the answer is they probably won’t. The majority of people do in any case have a moral compass which tells them it’s wrong to plagiarise. The culture of Twitter and other similar environments, sadly, appears to me to disable that compass somewhat. But in general (setting 'scraping' and 'throwaway environments' aside), I feel that undiscovered artists worrying themselves sick over being deliberately and specifically singled out for plagiarism, are probably worrying without great need.