By Andy Crestodina published March 3, 2014

7 Ways to Respond to Plagiarism as the Content Creator

ski-masked man at computerIf you weren’t a content marketer, you wouldn’t know, but content creation is hard work.

It’s not just the long hours of research, writing, and editing. It’s the always-on mode your brain is in, looking for insight and inspiration everywhere. “Could this be an idea for a blog post? No, I’m just reading the menu at the Olive Garden.” If you’re a content creator, you know what I mean.

That’s why we get angry when people copy us.

It’s happened to me many times. Sadly, plagiarism in the world of the content creator is very common. It’s easy to find if you know where to look. It’s so easy that I should caution you about reading this post: One likely outcome is outrage, since it’s very possible that you’re a victim. Still reading? Ok, but you’ve been warned.

It starts small

Our story begins with an email I got two years ago from a web design company in North Carolina. Basically, it said that a small company in Wisconsin had plagiarized its content — and some of mine as well. (Actually, there were three of us who had been copied in the letter.)

The other two businesses already had a plan to respond, which involved sending some incendiary emails, but taking no real legal action. Once these emails were sent, the offending website made a lame excuse and took down the content. Happy ending, right? Not quite.

How to find plagiarized content

During the process, I asked how they happened to notice the offender. It was a tiny company. There was no way they could have stumbled across it. How’d they find it?

It turns out that there are easy, free, fast ways to find plagiarized copy from content creators, also known as duplicate content. For example, there’s Copyscape. Just type in a URL and this tool will show you all the places where your page has been copied. That’s it.

Technology makes it so easy to find plagiarism, you’d have to be an idiot to try to get away with it.

So I thought I’d give it a try. I put in the address of my home page and clicked submit. When I saw the results, I almost fell out of my chair.

They copied our entire site!

There were about a dozen websites that had copied the text from our home page. That’s not good. However, amongst those was a site that went far beyond that.

In this instance, our layout, our navigation, our images — everything was there, with only minor changes. It was like seeing our site in a fun-house mirror. It was published by a web design and marketing company in another city, and it was a blatant fraud.

What to do about plagiarism

Plagiarism is a crime. Federal copyright laws (among other regulations) protect content creators. However, finding a lawyer may not get you far. I recommend taking the following steps (in this exact order) until the problem has been fixed or your rage subsides — whichever comes first.

Tip: If you want proof in your pocket that you wrote the copy first, use the Wayback Machine at Archive.org. It’s easy to show that you are the originator. If Copyscape is Exhibit A, the Wayback Machine is Exhibit B.

Time to make your case:

  1. Pick up the phone, if you can find a number: I highly recommend this. It’s good to be direct. It’s also fun to hear a plagiarist squirm. Just tell them what they copied, how you found it, and ask what they plan to do. In 90 percent of the cases, they’ll stammer an excuse, apologize, and then take down the copied text. 
  1. Send a “Cease and Desist” letter: This is step one in the legal process. The cost is low and it shows you’re serious. We’ve included a sample letter below. This should get a quick response. It might be contrite. It might be rude, but they’ll likely remove the content and the process will end here. 
  1. Notify their chamber of commerce: The mission of chambers is to promote and support good business. A good chamber will want to know if a member is taking shortcuts or breaking the law. 
  1. Write a one-star review on Google: This may sound extreme, but there is nothing unethical about giving a poor review to a sketchy business who has stolen work from another content creator. I would reserve this for plagiarists who refuse to remove the copied content. 
  1. Send their host a “take down” letter: This is the remedy for copyright infringement in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Use a look-up service to find the host and a template for the take down letter. Then just fax it in. 
  1. Report them to Google: Legal action is serious; Google blacklisting is cataclysmic. Welcome to the nuclear option. Here’s the request form for removal of content from Google. 
  1. Sue for damages: When all else fails, we have the courts (though honestly, the costs will likely outweigh the benefits).

Note: The Better Business Bureau will not get involved. It is concerned only with issues between businesses and their customers. Incidentally, the company that copied our website has an A+ rating in the BBB!

What we did

To make it official, we had our attorney handle the communication. There were letters, phone calls, excuses, and promises. The initial response was ignorance, not denial. They told us they had outsourced their design (strange for a web design company to outsource their own website) and their vendor must have copied us.

Eventually, they changed the design and the text. It still looked like an evil twin to our own site, but we dropped it. Our total cost in legal fees was around $2,500. We moved on. (If you’re interested in the gritty details, including screenshots, you can see the full story here.)

Was it worth a few thousand dollars? It’s an interesting question. It depends on how damaging the plagiarism is. Aside from branding and copyright protection issues, there are a few marketing implications.

Is getting plagiarized harmful in terms of SEO? What about duplicate content?

Not usually. The duplicate content penalty does exist, but it is widely misunderstood. As long as Google can tell that your version came first, you should be OK as the original content creator. In my experience, you are only at risk of a penalty if both these criteria are present:

  • The duplicate versions went live at almost the exact time as the original.
  • There are hundreds of duplicate versions.

I once saw a site removed from Google’s index completely, but it was because a lazy PR firm copied the home page of a newly launched website into a press release. They pushed it through the online newswires, and instantly there were hundreds of versions of the brand new site. The website was manually removed from Google. Blacklisted! But that’s a story for another post…

Legitimate content curation, and even spam-like content scrapers aren’t likely to affect your SEO. If anything, there could be an indirect benefit. If there are links back to your other content in an article that gets scraped, there will be new links back to your site (though if links from low-quality sites in random Asian countries is part of your content plan, you have bigger problems).

What about “spun” content? Is that bad?

If the article is significantly changed, it’s not plagiarism. If 75 percent of it is rewritten, it will pass the test for originality with both Google and the law. Don’t be tempted by content spinning software, though. That’s spam.

There is such a thing as ethical content spinning. Rewriting something from a new perspective is a way to create new content quickly. Professor Handley would call this “reimagining content.” Better yet, recreate the piece in another format (see the Periodic Table of Content for ideas).

Sample Cease and Desist letter

Just last week, a friend of mine, Susan Silver, discovered plagiarism of her own site, Argentum Strategy. The letter she sent is a good example of a response. With her permission, I offer it below. Please note that before sending this, Susan contacted her attorney and got his permission to “take his name in vain.”

sample letter

Ongoing protection

If you want to monitor ongoing plagiarism, Copyscape has a paid option called CopySentry that will email you a report. I tried this and found evidence of plagiarism once or twice per month, on average. Eventually, I wrote a standard email, and usually, I’d hear back with an apology. (I’ll admit — eventually we got bored and stopped monitoring.)

What about you? Ever been tempted to copy a beautiful bit of copy? Ever been plagiarized? Let’s hear your story as a content creator — but please make it original!

Want to learn more from instructors like Andy Crestodina on how to manage today’s biggest content marketing challenges? Sign up for a free trial of our new Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. Access over 35 courses, created by experts from Google, Mashable, SAP, and more.   

Cover image via Bigstock

Author: Andy Crestodina

Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. Andy is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can find Andy on and Twitter.

Other posts by Andy Crestodina

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  • Cris Hay-Merchant

    Great post, Andy. I really appreciate the practical tips and you sharing your own experience.

    • Andy Crestodina

      I’m glad if this was useful …and I hope you never need it!

  • http://www.spinsucks.com/ Clay Morgan

    Good post. I am very willing to concede that in some cases there are only so many ways to state something, but after a while, the “coincidences” start to add up, and suspicions just raise.

    Your approach is sound in another very common matter – people who are using your content without permission, even though they may actually give attribution. When I was still working at the newspaper, I encountered this quite frequently.

    Most of the time, at least in “use without permission” that initial phone call did the trick.

    Unfortunately, not always though.

    • Andy Crestodina

      You make a good point, Clay. As writers, we’re constantly swiping ideas from all kinds of sources. Repurposing, borrowing and hopefully, citing other authors. But this story is really about the blatant “ctrl+c and ctrl+v” type plagiarism. The copiers and pasters…

      On the other hand, I would be happy to discover that someone had taken this article, rewrote it from their perspective, quoted it, cited it and added to the conversation.

      Thanks for the comment, Clay!

  • http://www.robbiesenbach.com/ Rob Biesenbach

    Great post, Andy! I’ve bookmarked copyscape but I’m scared to check it. What if someone’s plagiarizing me? Worse, what if NOBODY’S plagiarizing me????

    • Andy Crestodina

      Would you rather be angry or lonely? There’s no way to win this one, Rob! If it would make you feel better, we can meet for a beer and steal ideas from each other…

      • http://www.robbiesenbach.com/ Rob Biesenbach

        Angry, definitely angry! I am ALWAYS up for beers!

  • http://paper.li Paper.li

    Wow. I guess I am most surprised by the lack of creativity in knocking off your (or another’s site). It’s one thing to get inspiration from looking at a site and truly another to think you can get away with a little airbrushing of an image, or two, to call it all your own…

    Oooh so here it comes: I admit I was caught in 6th grade for copying a book report from an older friend who had had the same teacher two years previous, and calling it my own. No fancy software caught that one. Just a smart teacher with an excellent memory.

    After being required to write a report on “how plagiarism shrinks our brain – 10 reasons you should do your own work” and being forced to read it in front of five other 6th grade classes as well as serve two week of after school detention picking the gum out of the carpet with my fingers (gross), I decided not to do that again. Ever. And that was only the punishment I received at school!

    I bet having them come pick the gum out of your carpet with their fingers and read a report on how stealing makes you stupid on stage at the next CMWorld would cure their appetite to plagiarize :)

    Thanks for taking the time to document and share your experience and next steps. Good as gold — as always.

    • Andy Crestodina

      Public shaming is an excellent idea, Kelly. The next best thing is to write a blog post that ranks #1 for “website plagiarism” and tell the entire story…

      Pro Tip: If you’re going to steal content from someone, don’t steal from someone who understands SEO. :)

  • kayross

    Very useful tips, thank you Andy! A few years ago, thanks to Copysentry, I discovered that a marketing consultant in India, who had subscribed to my enewsletter about marketing, had plagiarised huge chunks of text verbatim from many pages on my website onto a Slideshare presentation under his own name. Most ridiculously, he included biographical information about his (no, MY!) acting experience in Australia and Hong Kong that clearly wasn’t possible for him. I emailed him several times and received no response. Then I contacted the staff at Slideshare to give them proof of the guy’s plagiarism, and I asked them to remove his slidedeck and ban him from the site. I was disappointed to find that it was difficult to contact the Slideshare staff and they were not very helpful, but eventually they did remove the offending slidedeck. And of course I deleted the guy from the mailing list for my enewsletter.

    • Andy Crestodina

      Amazing. Never under estimate the laziness of a plagiarist. Here’s one for you: One of our clients had their entire site copied, every word and every line of code. The only difference was the products. It was a site that sold wine glasses, but it was all changed to dog treats.

      We noticed it because the plagiarists also tool the Google Analytics code without any changes. So their traffic showed up in my client’s account! Their laziness it what got them caught. We contacted them and they eventually took down the site…

  • http://www.it-sales-leads.com/ Barbara Mckinney

    Plagiarism is a serious problem for content creators online.There is so much content online that people seem to believe they can rip someone’s writing off, put their name on it, and no one would notice. In many cases, that’s true. It’s one of the reasons that content ripping has become such a profitable industry.Thanks for sharing this tool.I’ll check this out soon.

    • Andy Crestodina

      Hopefully, you don’t find much. But if you do, hopefully you track them down without mercy! :)

  • http://myows.com Myows

    Plagiarism is a serious issue, and one that shouldnt cost you thousands of dollars to solve. We are trying to create a solution to the problem that is easy to use and more reliable than wayback machine. Feel welcome to tell me what you think of Myows – which can datestamp your work through your RSS feed and then assist in contacting the infringers, drafting Cease and Desist letters and much more- and perhaps add it as a useful resource in your next article?

    We’re here to help content creators

    • Andy Crestodina

      Thanks! I’ll take a look…

  • Andy Crestodina

    How random. Yesterday someone found a Facebook page of a company in India with a picture of my team as the cover image. When would it ever make sense to use a picture of someone else’s employees? Classic…

    • http://paulalay.com/ Paula Lay

      How on earth did you come across that?!

      • Andy Crestodina

        Believe it or not, he mentions us in his posts. Very strange…

  • Susan Farris

    This is why it is so hard for some copywriters to find work. So many people think that it is ok to go grab copy from anywhere and use it as their own instead of creating it themselves or outsourcing.

    As for idea spinning, I do that a lot, but I’m lot stricter about how I reference people. If something is even 50% of someone else’s material or just sounds too similar I attribute it. Now if it just sparked an idea that I took a whole new direction, I don’t see much point in attribution unless I’m writing in response to them. Thoughts?

  • heidicohen

    Andy–

    This is a great post. Both content creators and marketers need to understand what’s involved.

    Plagiarism happens everywhere. It’s free content after all–right? (Just kidding.)

    I’ve had my content plagiarized by “traditional” journalists as well as top marketers. I guess that means I’ve made it.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen

  • Ellen B Clark

    Thanks for the informative post. As a content creator and blog writer, I hadn’t really thought about plagerism or direct copy/paste. I’ll be looking now! BTW, if I use text from someone/someplace other than my own creation, I ALWAYS cite! Throwback habit that should be taught more rigorously!

    • Andy Crestodina

      Absolutely, Ellen.

      Citing other creators isn’t just ethical, it’s good networking! If you cite someone and then mention them, they may drop by, read it, share it, leave a comment, etc.

  • http://paulalay.com/ Paula Lay

    Great article. I produced an infographic with my own copy (statistics were referenced – credit where its due – but putting it into context was original), concept and design which was very popular with thousands of embeds. A year later, another digital agency ripped off the entire infographic – same copy, they copy and pasted some of the design in an attempt to make it original and then put their logo on it.

    I sent a C&D email via Visual.ly, and also told the staff to take it down – but they didn’t. Unfortunately for them, the content for the infographic was very timely the time that I had created it – so theirs received no traction at all. They thought they would piggy back off the success of my infographic, without considering why people found mine valuable in the first place.

  • Erika Port

    Awesome steps to handle duplicate content, but duplicate content could plummet your rankings and traffic- how can you say it doesn’t really affect SEO? These duplicate content sites will be competing with one another!!

    • Andy Crestodina

      I’m my experience, the duplicate content penalty is not as big a problem as people make it sound. I do know of a site that was blacklisted from Google, but the circumstance was completely different. Many people who are worried about this have never seen a case where it’s hurt rankings. Just ask them for examples!

      Of course, the ideal is for all the content on your site to be completely original. I believe in keeping the highest standards for this! But a blog post of mine gets scraped, I don’t worry about it too much from an SEO perspective.

      On Monday, Google created a way to report sites that are outranking you for your own content. It’s rare, but if you wrote something, someone reposted it and they version outranks yours, you can report them!

      Here’s the link:
      https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Pw1KVOVRyr4a7ezj_6SHghnX1Y6bp1SOVmy60QjkF0Y/viewform

      • Erika Port

        It is a big issue regarless if its a blog frim your site or website content in general. Moz even says, “When duplicate content is present, site owners suffer rankings and traffic losses, and search engines provide less relevant results.”

        http://moz.com/learn/seo/duplicate-content

        There’s a difference with link sharing, someone sharing your content via link vs copying your content (even if they change a few words around). And yes, there are ways to report and take action. Google does have a DMCA system to help remove scraped content, too as you can be outranked for your own content: http://searchengineland.com/google-scraper-tool-185532

        • Andy Crestodina

          Thanks for sharing that link, Erika. This is a super interesting topic. I still feel like it’s widely misunderstood and many people who are worried about it shouldn’t be.

          Strictly speaking, a huge percentage of the internet is curated, “duplicate” content. For example, most of Huffington Post is duplicate content. Would you recommend they remove it all? Obviously not. So there’s more at work here than just removing anything duplicate from every site we touch.

          I’ve only seen that one case where it hurt rankings and traffic, and it was pretty extreme. If you see any case studies or evidence, please send them along!

  • KebnekaiseSvensson

    It’s illuminating to know what a plagiarist looks like, too…

  • http://www.sharisecunningham.com The Word Chef

    Through a random Google search I once found a verbatim copy of a nutrition story I’d written for About.com. It was several years old by the time I found it and I no longer managed that topic on About so maybe the guy who stole it thought it was free reign and/or figured he’d never get caught. He even used the personal anecdote I wrote about my mother arranging food on my plate.

    He put himself out there as some sort of health expert. It was a guest post on a general content site so I contacted them and told them they were promoting stolen content. I included my original draft (amazing to still have it after so long and several PC crashes).

    Anyway, they took it down fairly quickly but without much of an apology. I just wonder if they banned the guy from writing for them, I never checked back. I don’t think Copyscape existed back then — or if it did I didn’t know about it — but this is a good reminder to always check up on your content, no matter how old it is.

  • http://mcgallen.com seamus

    Thanks for this piece. I faced many similar problems way back in early 2000s, with someone copying my biographical sketch and website copy completely, in Africa. No recourse then except to post a disclaimer on my website with a warning that we had nothing to do with this identity thief.

    More recently, a website portal copied many of my articles, first without attribution, then an attribution link, but without seeking my consent first. Again, as a small firm, I figured the best recourse was to subscribe to Copyscape, rather than pursuing legal means (which I do not personally like).

  • Ron montgomery

    What a great post thanks! A free Copyscape alternative is a service called Copyleaks- http://www.copyleaks.com. I use it regularly and it helped me find a few websites that unfortunately copied my content.

    Thanks for this piece again,
    Ron

  • Kristen Hicks

    Ugh, the BBB is often frustrating. Apparently part of their criteria for grading businesses is how responsive they are to a complaint, but how they respond doesn’t matter. So if they say anything at all, even if it doesn’t address the problem, they get their A+. Sorry for the mostly unrelated rant.

    I find some of the examples of the levels of laziness plagiarists show in these comments hilarious. It’s not surprising that they’re not the brightest of the bright, but funny nonetheless how much they overlook.