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WSJ reports on content theft

Posted by Michael Bloch in web development (Friday March 3, 2006 )

In early January, I posted about content theft and the extent that others had gone to in unauthorized reproduction of articles etc. from Taming the – to the point of some even claiming to be the author of the content.

As it turned out, in some of these cases, the “author” had bought the articles from a freelancer who gave them exclusive rights over the content and ownership; the purchaser therefore then signed their own name to the article and then published it to their sites. Unfortunately for the purchaser (and me) the freelancer had no rights to sign over exclusivity in the first place as they did not own the content – I did. The freelancer simply lifted it from Taming the, perhaps changed a few words here and there, at times not even bothering to do that.

The person buying the content isn’t always squeaky clean though. Firstly, who can buy truly original articles at a few bucks a throw? I have no sympathy for people who pay peanuts for “orginal” content and then get walloped. Surely common sense must prevail at some stage. Developing articles takes time. Even freelance writers from countries where labor costs are low would expect decent compensation for original works.

There’s a very interesting article recently published in the Wall Street Journal by Lee Gomes who, as an experiment, decided to bid on some writing jobs on freelance networks. This was not a high bucks exercise; Lee was offered $100 to write 50 articles.

Lee was not only encouraged by his “employer” to write on dodgy subjects, but was given content from other sites to make minor changes to in order to make it “original”.

Lee makes a good point – that it’s the search engines that have contributed somewhat to these seedy practices. Everyone wants top rankings and everyone knows that more “original” relevant content gives you a better shot at number 1, so many are engaging in these sorts of tactics – the quick, cheap and easy “fix”.

After all, who has time to site down and actually write an article? I do. I make the time. Others should do the same; or at least pay properly for the privilege of original articles.

It’s one thing to reproduce an article *with the authors permission*, post it to your site along with acknowledgements, quite another to change a few words, or perhaps none at all, and just claim you wrote it.

I’d like to take Lee’s theory a little bit further. It’s not just the search engines that have contributed to the rampant levels of plagiarism and pure content theft we see today, more so it’s contextual advertising. Contextual advertising generates ads based on the content of the page – like the ads you see on the right hand side of this page. The site owner is paid for each click on these ads by the ad network. Depending on the topic, some of these clicks can pay big bucks.

When contextual advertising really kicked off, unscrupulous parties figured out they could generate a truckload of income by “scraping” sites (copying sections of pages by automated means), plagiarizing, or just simply stealing content; then driving traffic to those pages in the hope that people would click on the ads. Did it work? You betcha.

We can’t just point the finger at search engines for this trend; we’re all responsible to some degree. I write articles to rank well in search engines and to attract people to my site. I advertise relevant products and services around those articles. I’m just doing the same thing as the scrapers and plagiarizers – except the big difference is, I’m the one writing the content – it’s my research, my time that I invest, I earn any commissions I make.

So, if you’re ever offered “orginal” content at extraordinarily low rates, run a mile. Or if you are tempted and purchase these el cheapo articles, select snippets from your purchases and run them through a search engine – I practically guarantee you’ll find your “original” content published elsewhere.

If you’re tempted to plagiarize content yourself, think twice – there’s many angry writers like myself out there who are constantly watching for unauthorize reproduction and theft.

If you’re a writer and would like to check to see if your content is being stolen, here’s a simple tip. Take a phrase from an article you’ve written, an uncommon prhase, and copy and paste it into a search engine. You may get a nasty shock as to where your content is ending up.

Another interesting free plagiarism detection tool to try is CopyScape and a great resource for all things plagiarism related is Plagiarism Today.


4 comments for WSJ reports on content theft
  1. I’m not sure how this article flew under my radar but I just now saw it. I have to say that I enjoyed the read thoroughly and am very grateful for the plug.

    I also have to agree that contextual advertising does play a role. To think otherwise would be very naive.

    Of course, whenever I’m quick to blame search engines and contextual ads for these problems, I’m quickly smacked in the face with a conundrum, what are the alternatives? Without search engines, the Web is almost completely useless and without context ads there’s no way to profitably host free content. We all know what happened to banner ads.

    Yes, these technologies are the root of the problem but they are, frustratingly enough, what makes the Web work.

    Until we can find a way of seeking out information or targeting ads that doesn’t reward these methods, we’re going to be in a bind. The worry isn’t just that legitimate writers will have their content stolen, but that the Web itself will be so loaded with junk that it’s almost useless.

    It seems we’re on the cusp of that already and that, quite frankly, scares me.

    Hopefully we can still pull back from the brink.

    Comment by Jonathan Bailey — March 7, 2006 @ 1:37 am

  2. Hi Jonathan,

    Great to hear from you! I’m still a big believer in “traditional” affiliate programs as an alternate means of generating revenue, but that can be difficult depending on the topic a content site covers.

    Contextual advertising, while spurring on the plagiarists, most certainly helps reward the good guys (such as yourself) too; so it’s important that the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater.

    Oddly enough (or perhaps not), I’ve seen very little from the major contextual advertising networks on cleaning up or addressing splog/plagiarism issues. It just usually consists of a few “thou shalt” type lines in publisher agreements.

    As you point out in this post on Plagiarism Today, a lot of plagiarism occurs in splogs:

    Active anti-splog measures or invitations to report splogs are basically just covered by search engines usual spam reporting functions.

    On more than one occasion I’ve seen splogs and plagiarists be dropped from a particular search engine, but the related contextual advertising (from the same engine) remains active.

    I really do think that the search engines and ad agencies need to bring anti-splog campaigns to the forefront and to make it so difficult for them that only the sneakiest survive; maybe a collaborative effort.

    It shouldn’t just consist of penalizing these sites in the search engines, but cancelling their owners’ contextual advertising publisher accounts. One splogger can control a truckload of splogs – cancel his account and he’ll soon be broke, and perhaps hundreds of splogs will disappear along with him.

    With the way clearer, this would also encourage the real bloggers and authors to continue cranking out their valuable content for free; and more than likely improving on it.

    The ad networks just need to invest some more of the millions of dollars they are making in keeping these parasites at bay.

    People would still click on links, readers would still get to enjoy good articles; authors would be more fairly recompensed, advertisers would make just as many sales, heck, everyone wins :).

    After all, the contextual ad networks always seem so concerned about image; and if the general public became acutely aware that perhaps *some* of them consciously, but quietly, reward splogs and plagiarists because of the money they generate for the engine/network, it may cast somewhat of a nasty shadow on their valuable names….

    … but then again, maybe Joe Surfer just doesn’t give a damn :)

    Comment by Michael Bloch — March 7, 2006 @ 4:42 am

  3. “Never attribute to malice what can be equally attributed to stupidity”

    That’s one of my favorite quotes. I think the reason sploggers get dropped out of search engines and not out of the respective ad agencies because, at these mega corporations, building 221, wing z, bay 3 room 191 is not talking with building 121 floor 2 bay 19.

    Could they invest more in creating a “heads up” system where department A alerts B to the splogger, of course, but there’s little financial incentive to do that. Sploggers do generate money for the search engine and can muddy up competitor’s search products. They’ve inoculated themselves against the splogger, now they are going to profit of other companies’ infections.

    Clever. Yes. Evil. Not really, but certainly not “good” either. One certainly can’t blame them for wanting to spend money to lose money. That’s like buying the bullet to shoot yourself in the foot.

    Granted, the leg needs to be amputated, but that’s another analogy.

    Clearly we can’t count on these companies to do the work for us. We have to redesign the technology, from the ground up, realizing this time that there are a lot of bad people out there that will do anything to make a living without actually working for it.

    We have to face facts, our Internet, our business model and our search engines were all designed very naively, very trustingly. We now have to grow up, realize Santa isn’t real, that there are bad people out there and rebuild our Internet from that.

    Of course, the Internet is so far along now, I don’t see anyone starting from scratch.

    I just hope that the Web doesn’t become like email, needing spam filters and other kinds of protection just to be useful.

    That seems to be the direction we’re heading.

    Comment by Jonathan Bailey — March 7, 2006 @ 4:37 pm

  4. Wrap Up: WSJ Tackles Online Content Theft

    A lot has been going on in plagiarism news these past two weeks (I missed last Tuesday’s update due to Mardi Gras) but much of it, including the recent Feedburner overhaul, has already been covered here.
    However, there are a few important stories…

    Trackback by Plagiarism Today — March 7, 2006 @ 9:06 pm

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