As a freelance copywriter whose work is widely published online and also in various print media, I’ve occasionally found myself the victim of plagiarists.
These are people who read your copy and think, “Wow! I wish I’d written that.” So they do the next best thing: steal it and present it as their own.
Most common is for my marketing copy crafted for a client’s business to be appropriated by a competitor who realizes the content could suit their business as well. They change the names and maybe a few words here and there, but their work mostly consists of copying and pasting, not developing original thoughts and ideas, even though they may try to convince themselves otherwise.
When I come across copy online that’s clearly been stolen from me, I send the offending party a cease-and-desist letter. It contains legal threats regarding copyright infringement as well as a warning that I plan to file a Notice of Digital Millennium Copyright Act Infringement with Google, which could get their site removed from the search engine’s index.
Most of the time, the plagiarist claims ignorance, either that they thought it was okay to steal copy if it’s been posted online or that someone on their staff must have committed the offense without the business owner’s knowledge. While I don’t buy their story, as long as they remove the stolen copy, I let the matter drop.
I used to fume over those plagiarists who stole my work my first few years in business, I’ve now reached a point where I see them as a part of being in business, albeit an unpleasant one.
I thought I’d learned to not take these acts of plagiarism personally and to handle them with the same detached efficiency I use for paying bills.
But then it happened to my daughter. Katie is a sophomore in high school. One of her ideas was stolen this week. Not by a business but by a fellow student. And suddenly I found plagiarism was deeply personal to me once again.
While the stolen work didn’t involve copywriting, and copyright infringement wasn’t relevant to this situation, Katie felt violated. And I couldn’t help but share her anger.
Katie is taking a photography class as her elective at school this semester. Last week her teacher told the class that their next assignment was to take a photo of something in nature — a flower, an animal, anything outdoors.
The best photo would be submitted to a national photography contest and would also be printed on the school’s printer as an 16″ x 24″ poster for the photographer to frame and keep.
Katie asked if I would take her to a park about a half hour from home where we’d once seen a family of wild peacocks. She had her heart set on getting a beautiful photo of a peacock. I thought it was a great idea.
On Saturday morning we went to the park. We found the peacocks and spent several hours following them around the park snapping photos. It was a fun mom-daughter activity.
Although none of the peacocks spread its feathers, Katie still managed to get some fabulous shots, including many tight close-ups with tack-sharp focus like the one below. She shot about 200 pictures.
When we got home, Katie spent several hours going through the photos and enhancing her favorites in PhotoShop. She couldn’t wait to show them to her teacher.
Katie was so excited about her pictures that she posted a few of them on her Instagram account, explaining that they were for a class project due Monday. A classmate, Austin, saw her photos and complimented her on them. He asked her where in Orlando had she found peacocks to photograph. Katie told him about the park.
You can probably guess the rest of the story. Austin went to the park not once, but multiple times over the weekend until he got “the photo,” one of the peacocks spreading its feathers. He also used his dad’s professional camera and lens, which are far superior to what Katie has.
Yesterday, Monday, the students brought in their photos for the assignment. Austin’s peacock photo was the clear winner. In fact, no one even noticed that Katie had also shot peacock photos.
The teacher printed a poster-sized enlargement of his photo for him to get framed.
At the end of class, Katie confronted Austin about stealing her idea but he claimed he’d planned to shoot peacock pictures all along. Yeah, right.
Katie came home so upset. I can’t blame her. I’m furious at that kid Austin but there’s nothing I can do. If I contacted the teacher, it would look petty. And it really wouldn’t change anything.
Katie just wants to forget about the whole thing. I’ve offered to pay for an enlargement for Katie that we can frame as she’d planned, but she doesn’t want one. It wouldn’t be the same. I get that.
She’ll get past this, probably sooner than I will. I just hope this doesn’t turn her off to photography, which I believe is a wonderful creative outlet. If you saw how discouraged she was last night, you’d know that’s a legitimate concern.
I realize having someone steal your idea for a photo contest is not a catastrophe, but it sure crushed my kid’s spirit. And that broke this mom’s heart.
So what’s the bottom line of this long story about idea stealing? Don’t do it.
People who steal ideas suck, whether they’re kids or adults. And to the person who brainstormed that clever the idea or the copywriter who labored over those clever words, it’s as hurtful as if you’d stolen their physical property. Maybe, moreso. Do you really want to be “that guy?”
Finally, if you’ve always chosen the easy way out of an assignment — copying from others — force yourself to come up with your own ideas. Be original.
Put in the sweat equity it takes to create something from nothing. The pride you’ll feel from having done it yourself will be well worth the effort expended and of far greater value than any financial benefit you could possibly derive from plagiarizing.
If you have a website and are concerned that competitors might have stolen your content to use for themselves, run a quick check. The infographic below by Suzanne Dibble, small business attorney, tells you how to identify content theft.
Being vigilant in protecting your original copy is important. You want to be judged by the quality of your work, and no one else should benefit from your efforts.