Let’s talk about online plagiarism.

Jack Watkins building a website from scratch

It’s been a strange week. A juxtaposition of feelings perhaps? From the disheartening, frustrating feeling of finding out that multiple businesses have taken copyrighted content from my website and social media profiles, and used my hard work for their own business (without credit, and word for word)… to then having so much support from the lovely community on Instagram who’ve helped me to see the positive that my content has resonated with someone enough for them to think to copy it.

In an effort to help anyone else who may have their work taken without permission, I wanted to write this post to discuss why this is bad for all of us, ways to find infringing content, and what you can do about it.

Last week, I stumbled upon a blog post by Kerstin Martin talking about her experience of people taking her content, and Kerstin’s post linked to an article by Sarah Moon who was also sharing her experiences. (Warning: before you head over to this next link and potentially find copies of your work, know that it’s a frustrating, annoying, and violating feeling and I wouldn’t recommend searching for infringing content unless you’re mentally prepared and willing to do something about it). Both ladies had used the Copyscape website which allows you to enter the different pages of your website, which then returns websites with similar content and gives you a percentage match (you only get so many free searches per day so use it wisely). And well, I was not expecting to find anyone copying my work so I was shocked to find more than 10 websites using my content. WTF! It wasn’t like it was just a sentence or two either… they were using entire sections of text, word for word. Even taking client testimonials, and just changing the name of who’d written them. One of them was also using my Instagram photos on their Instagram profile too. One of them had used my about me page… so strange! Another person had taken the source code of my website and simply changed the logo and name. Outrageous!

Another way to find content is to search for snippets of your content on Google in quote marks. This searches for your exact phrase rather than what Google thinks might be relevant e.g. “Bringing brands and websites to life for visionary entrepreneurs” returns pages using that exact phrase. I found even more instances of plagiarism with this method on top of what Copyscape had already found, by searching for single sentences from my website.

Safe to say, I was pretty raging to begin with. Once I’d calmed down a little, I left my business coach a voice note to ask her opinion, and also asked the lovely people of Instagram if they had any experience of this… and I was shocked by how many people this had happened to. The cheek of it!

Writing content is difficult. It takes a long time. I understand that we all need to start somewhere. Why not make a start with what you have, learn from your experiences, your mistakes, and continue to iterate and improve as you go?

Search engines will penalise websites with duplicate content, and only one version will show in results as they seek to show you the version most likely to be relevant to your search. Rankings and traffic to both versions of the content will suffer. The search engine won’t know which is the original version in most cases.

If you’ve found your own work being plagiarised, I feel for you. I know how violating it feels, and how frustrating it is. I’m sorry that this has happened to you. Let’s discuss what we can do about it…

Please note, I am not a lawyer, and this is not legal advice. I cannot and will not be liable for any damages, costs or legal fees associated with the below information.

Gather evidence.

Firstly, I’d recommend gathering evidence. Take screenshots on desktop and mobile. Make sure the URL and date are visible on your screenshot if possible. If you update your website frequently, I’d recommend taking screenshots of each version of your website as I found multiple cases of people using content from previous versions of my site too. Luckily, a record of all code changes are stored in BitBucket for my website, so I can easily reference when each page of code was published, amended, or removed. I’d recommend doing this for your own website too if you’re able to. Check out the social media profiles of any plagiarists too if they’re linked on their websites, as you may find further plagiarised content there.

If you want to investigate how long your content has been being plagiarised for, you can try using the Wayback Machine which keeps an archive of websites and allows you to go back to snapshots from the past. This isn’t a bulletproof resource though as they only tend to archive the most popular websites at regular intervals, and some functionality of the “archived” websites may not work if they relied on dynamic content.

Make sure your website terms of use is up to date.

Or at least, make sure you have one. I bought the legal policies for my website from the Website Contracts website. The terms of use for my website clearly outlines what you can and can’t do whilst visiting, and makes it clear that “you must not republish material from our website, exploit material from our website for a commercial purpose, redistribute material from our website” etc. A robust terms of use will cover you in the event that you wish to take legal action for misuse of your website or content.

Attempt to resolve the issue amicably.

Once you’ve gathered your evidence, I’d recommend first trying to resolve the issue amicably. I use the word amicably rather than all guns blazing, yet there’s still no need for any niceties. Get straight to the point and make sure they’re aware you’re serious about pursuing this further. If the website or social media profile in question offers a way to get in touch, I’d recommend contacting via these methods with a simple message which says something along the lines of:

Subject: Use of copyrighted content

It’s been brought to my attention that you’re using multiple instances of copyrighted content taken from my website on your website {link} and also your Facebook page {link}.

You have 48 hours to take this content down. I will take further action and consult my lawyer if you fail to do so.

I had mixed success with this method. Some apologised and agreed to take the content down, another blamed their “copywriter”, another tried to justify it by saying “I’ve never seen web services explained so well!”… like, “Whoops, busted, don’t hate me!” How odd, It baffles me! Others read the email, clicked the links and ignored it (I use Polymail to track email opens, link clicks and more… highly recommend).

Some of the people asked me to outline exactly which sections I was referring to, which I then sent over evidence of.

If you wish to try a more formal route, you can issue a “Cease and Desist” letter which you’ll find templates for on Google.

Report, where possible.

If resolving the issue amicably does not work, the next step could be to report the content e.g. Facebook and Instagram both have methods available to report content for copyright infringement. You usually need to provide a link to the infringing content, your original content and a contact method, and the infringing content will likely be removed fairly quickly. I had success with this for the person who was using my Instagram photos on their own profile.

You can use this website to figure out who is hosting a website. The website host has a responsibility as well as the website owner not to infringe copyright as they could also be liable. Once you know who’s hosting the website, you can file a DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) takedown notice, provide evidence of the infringing content and original content, and submit your request. I’ve done this for the website who had stolen my source code, and will also do so for anyone infringing my content on a large scale. I’m still awaiting a response from the host I’ve contacted at present.

Google also allows you to file DMCA takedown notices here, in order to remove infringing content from search results. I’ll be doing this next.

Instruct an intellectual property lawyer.

If you have the funds and energy to do so, a next step may be to instruct an intellectual property lawyer specialised in your area of expertise, who will be able to explain what your options are.

Name and shame, leave negative reviews on their social media profiles perhaps?

A lot of people suggested that I name and shame the plagiarists and leave negative reviews on their social media channels, TrustPilot etc. Although I was tempted to do this, it’s not my style, and I don’t want to leave myself or my business open to legal cases for libel or slander (although everything I’d be saying would be a true and accurate account). That said, if all of the above methods fail, I may have no other option?

Not only is plagiarism unethical and bad practice, it’s theft. Theft of intellectual property. I’m hopeful people wouldn’t come into my home and steal a TV and think it’s ok… so why do they think it’s ok to swipe content straight from my website? It’s no different other than the fact that one is tangible and one isn’t.

Imagine hiring one of these people. How much of a disconnect would there be between the brand and image they are portraying through their online presence, and the actual offline experience of working with them? I worry what they’d produce. I create content for my website by working with actual clients first, and then writing content that is engaging and compelling based on the unique problems I’m able to solve for my them. That won’t be the same for every designer because we’re all different people, with unique gifts to share. We all have a different skillset, life experience and approach… why not celebrate that? Instead of trying to imitate someone else?

“Authenticity will always be the ultimate credibility” Elizabeth Cairns wrote in her book “The Empowered Entrepreneur” and I wholeheartedly agree. People say “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, and I say, “F*ck off, it’s theft!”

JW x

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Jack Watkins