Sunday, November 25, 2012

Plagiarism is Not Cool

If you’ve ever had something you’ve cared about stolen from you unexpectedly (because all stealing is unexpected, really), maybe this story will make more sense.

Three months ago someone posted an anonymous tip to my blog linking to another blogger who’d taken text from one of my entries, Fuck Your Impractical Hipster Room Decorations.  Her entry copied, nearly verbatim, the paragraph I’d worked the hardest on: a summation of why I despise the artificiality of curated rooms and would rather live in a space that has personal meaning rather than one I can show off.  Ironically, the plagiarist seemed to have missed the point of my discussion, as she’d posted the text in question beneath photos of her new bedroom, which included such hipster staples as a derivative of the Keep Calm and Carry On poster, women’s shoes placed on a shelf for decorative purposes, china dolls proudly labeled as vintage, and a notebook with a bird on it.  She had moved into a new apartment and wanted to show it off.  She also wanted everyone to know that her decorations were genuine, not fake.

I sat at the computer for some time, thinking at first that it may have been a coincidence (it wasn’t) or a mistake (no), and, when denial had run its course, trying to decide what to do.  I searched her blog, finding photo-filled trips to island resorts, demonstrations of make-up application equipment, endlessly narcissistic pictures of herself in slim-fitting vintage clothes, and pictures of food from trendy restaurants.  I became distraught, hating this hipster fashion model who had stolen from me and from others (English was not her first language, and the quality of her prose changed drastically from entry to entry) and was now making money through blog advertising and paid entries about the make-up products and restaurants she praised just a little too highly.

This was my mistake.  Looking back, there were three reasons why it was easy for me to become as emotionally unhinged as I did:
  1. She came from a different country
  2. Her blog had a higher readership than mine
  3. She was a hipster
When we’ve been wronged by people we don’t know very well, it’s easy to choose a focal point like gender, race, social status, level of affluence, career path, or level of success to get angry at rather than confront the injustice directly.  When we know people better, we see past all of those things and can hate them for who they are, rather than the superficial qualities they embody. 

After my mania cooled, I set to work.  I wrote her an e-mail requesting nicely that she take my words down or give me credit.  When she didn’t reply I wrote more e-mails, sent her Facebook messages, and posted comments to her blog that never made it past the Awaiting Moderation stage.  My messages started out firm, then escalated to twistedly sarcastic and mocking prose of the sort I unleash on others in moments of frustration.  The girl never replied to my comments, a reminder that we live in a world that finds it acceptable for such correspondence to go unacknowledged (an infuriating reality for anyone who has ever had to look for a job).

Taking some advice from Stu, I contacted the plagiarist’s web host, since they would be legally prohibited from hosting content that violates copyright law.  Through the magic of social media, the plagiarized article was actually posted on two different sites: Blogger and a Wordpress-template domain.  Blogger is, of course, hosted under the Google umbrella, and a few quick links lead me to an amazingly user-friendly form showing applicants how to report a violation.  I filled out the form and within two days Google deleted the post.

I celebrated, cheered, and rejoiced that there was justice in the world.  I sent the plagiarist a gloating Facebook message pointing out that her Blogger entry was gone and requesting that she remove its twin.  In retrospect, I did this more to assert my moral superiority than to produce a tangible result, but it felt good.  I needed her to know that I was better than her.

When no tangible result was produced, I hunted down the second blog’s host using Site Trail, which tracks webhosting and other, less relevant information for websites.  I researched online plagiarism, how to find it, and how to report it.  I wrote an e-mail to the host’s abuse department.  When nothing happened, I did more research and found, buried deep within the cavernlike Terms of Service, a law office that handled copyright complaints and compliance with the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, the American ratification of an international treaty protecting copyrighted material.  In densely-worded legalese, they cited six items required to report a copyright violation. 
  1. Your signature (or your lawyer’s)
  2. A link to the work that was stolen
  3. A link to the site that stole your work
  4. Your contact information (e-mail address, regular address, and phone number)
  5. An honest statement saying that you believe your work was stolen
  6. Another honest statement saying that you didn’t lie about items 1-6
To see the official, difficult to read versions of these items, click here and scroll down to section (c)-(3).

This time I wrote both an e-mail and an actual letter.  Two days later, the second entry was gone too.  I’d done it; something bad had happened, and I’d fixed it.  My work was safe again. 

What have I learned from all this?  Proper procedure for reporting copyright violations, for one thing.  (I hope that my experience, along with the Digital Millennium Act guidelines above, can be of help to someone.)  The foolishness of stereotyping people, rather than simply hating the things they’ve done, for another.  I’ve also seen, once again, the futility of attempting to contact someone who, as Kyle Reese says in the first Terminator movie, can’t be bargained with or reasoned with.  But most importantly, I’ve seen that there exist in this world many laws—voluminous, overly specific, and written in language that defies comprehension—that will yield results provided we follow the instructions carefully.  This is best done without emotion, as if the action were as routine a process as stamping a letter or signing the back of a check.  There is no use getting vehement or lashing out.  The solution might just involve filling out the right form.