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Stop Web Plagiarists from Stealing Your Content

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How do you find out whether people are lifting content from your site and using it at theirs? You can search for unique strings of text from your site via a Web search service such as Google to uncover other sites with the same content. You can buy a pricey infringement-detection program or hire a public relations firm to do the detective work for you. And you can try a new free service called Copyscape (www.copyscape.com), which makes tracking Web plagiarism easier.

Although the practice is fairly widespread, Web plagiarism is clearly wrong as well as against the law, a violation of both U.S. and international copyright provisions. It’s a fallacy that a Web site or page needs a copyright symbol (a “c” within a circle) to have copyright protection. (One exception to the prohibition against reusing the work of others on the Web is reposting small excerpts from someone else’s site when offering comments or criticism.)

Often, people caught plagiarizing the content of another site receive cease-and-desist letters from lawyers. But plagiarists can wind up having to pay damages, particularly if it can be shown that unauthorized use of another site’s content caused the owner of the infringed site to lose profits or enabled the plagiarist to gain profits.

The Copyscape Solution

I see Copyscape as a service that helps keep people honest. Launched in July 2004, it’s both clever and effective. Using it, I found a site that was reusing the content of one of my sites verbatim, without permission, and making it seem that the site owner had created the content himself.

To use Copyscape, you just type in the address of your page; leveraging Google’s technology, it searches the Web for pages with many words copied from yours. If the plagiarist moved sentences around or changed some key words in a deliberate effort to remain undetected, Copyscape will still find the page.

An offering of Indigo Stream Technologies Ltd., Copyscape exemplifies the worldwide aspect of the World Wide Web. The company is a legal entity of Gibraltar and a partnership between a Brit living in Israel and an American. I spoke on the phone with the former, Gideon Greenspan, while he was in Scotland, where he was presenting a paper.

“Plagiarism is a huge problem on the Internet because it’s so easy to do,” said Greenspan, who has been developing try-before-you-buy shareware for the Macintosh for the past 10 years.

His company also recently developed the Web content clipping service Google Alert (www.googlealert.com), which lets you set up automatic daily Google searches to determine if anyone mentions you, your competitors, your interests, or anything else on the Web that you specify, and emails the results to you.

Copyscape is a free service, as is Google Alert. But just as Google Alert has a beefed-up pay version, Greenspan says that Copyscape will too. With the free version of Copyscape, you have to go to Copyscape’s Web site and type in the address of your page. With the upcoming commercial version, you’ll be able to set up automatic daily searches and have the results emailed to you.

Copyscape isn’t perfect. It won’t find JPEG or GIF images, QuickTime movies, text contained in Flash animations, or new text on the Web not yet indexed by Google. Still, it’s the best low-cost tool out there for controlling how your text-based content is used on the Web.

Other products also attempt to keep people from filching others’ words on the Web. Turnitin (www.turnitin.com) is targeted to educators and designed to help them prevent students from getting credit for plagiarized papers. iThenticate (www.ithenticate.com) is targeted to publishers, news agencies, law firms, companies, and nonprofit organizations. Both are available under various pricing schedules.

How to Handle a Plagiarist

If you discover another site plagiarizing yours, first collect all available evidence to support your case. Next, find the owner of the site. Most sites include contact information. If you can’t find it, do a WhoIs search–type “whois” (without the quotation marks) into Google to find WhoIs directories.

Then consider sending a firm but nonbelligerent email asking that the owner stop using your site’s content. If that doesn’t work, consider having your lawyer send a cease-and-desist letter to the person and the person’s Web host. And if that doesn’t work, consider having your lawyer file suit.

At the Copyscape Web site, you can find links to additional information about Web plagiarism and what to do about it.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway. He can be reached at reidgold@netaxs.com or www.netaxs.com/~reidgold/column.

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