Small Biz Life

Plagiarism is not just bad for SEO. Here is what you can do about it.

Plagiarism is not just bad for SEO・Kerstin Martin Squarespace Studio

Two years ago I wrote a post about copycats, i.e. business owners who swipe content from other people’s websites and present it as their own. This can range from the whole website being copied to selected pages, paragraphs or just a few sentences here and there. Sometimes content is copied verbatim, often it’s tweaked and re-packaged a bit but it’s still obvious that it was copied when you put the two side-by-side.

Since I wrote that first post on the subject I had kind of put it aside and turned a blind eye to it. I knew it was still happening but I was, you know, too busy growing a business. And writing lots of content for my website and newsletters. Which has subsequently been copied. Ugh.

The empath in me gets it.

Starting a new business or designing a website for the first time can be hard. You don’t quite have the experience yet on which to build out content. Then you see what others in your field are doing and you feel inspired by them and ‘borrow’ their words with the best of intentions to change them and make them your own. Only that never happens because you get busy with other things and before you know it the copied words begin to feel like your own, without a second thought to the damage you are doing to your business and that of the person whose words you took.

Writing good copy doesn’t come natural to everyone and is a skill that many have to learn (and it can be learned). I for instance don’t just sit down at my desk and the words come flowing out. English is not my mother tongue and it can take me a good while to write a sales page or a blog post, everything you see on my website is born out of thorough contemplation and effort. I’m ok with the time it takes me to write my content because I enjoy the process and have a deep love for words and communication. As my business evolved so did my website copy, until it reached a point where everything just fell into place and that’s what you see today.

So when someone comes in and takes my words they take so much more: my years of experience, my hard work, my growth as a business owner, and a bit of my heart & soul.

Two years ago, when I first was made aware that my content was being copied, I kinda took the high road. I had some heartfelt conversations with the folks in question and they took down the duplicate content and we moved on. The same is happening this week: Sarah Moon, a much respected fellow designer was sharing her own experience with plagiarism and she mentioned a website that compares your content against what’s on the internet so I thought I’ll check it out and promptly went down a deep rabbit hole. I discovered so much of my content on other designers’ websites! Click here to see some examples. I reached out to three of the most blatant ones who had copied large chunks of text and pages word-for-word, and their replies were genuine and remorseful. They apologized for offending me and assured me that there was no ill intent and that the content will be removed.

The empath in me still gets it. The heart-centered person in me understands and forgives.

But the business woman in me is disappointed. And finds it hard to accept plagiarism as unintentional conduct.

Why plagiarism is always a bad idea・Kerstin Martin Squarespace Studio

This time around I actually wondered: what goes through a person’s mind when they – after having copied substantial and verbatim amounts of text from someone else’s website – hit the publish button on their own site? Do they know they are cheating? Do they feel bad or guilty? Or do they feel relief because now they don’t have to put in their own effort?

Whatever makes them publish that content, no matter how they feel about it, there is actually no excuse for it:

Copying whole pages and paragraphs verbatim and presenting them as your own is stealing.

Tweaking or adding a few of your own words here and there is trying to get away with stealing.

The same goes for taking someone else’s sentences and re-packaging them. There is even a term for this, it’s called patchwriting.

 
Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard says. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material. It’s a form of intellectual dishonesty that indicates that the writer is not actually thinking for herself.
Kelly McBride, Poynter
 

Have you heard of Leo Babauta? He is the author behind zenhabits.com and his approach to copyright is very interesting: all of his content is uncopyrighted and you can do with it what you want. Even write a book from it and publish that and make a million dollars! His philosophy has always fascinated me, I suppose it’s a very zen kind of attitude. I come more from a place of what is right and what is not. And taking other people’s words and claiming them as your own is just not right in my world.

Stealing someone else’s copy is unethical and if you care about honesty and integrity you shouldn’t do it. Plus, morals aside, there are other implications, too:

  • Duplicate content is bad for SEO. Search engines do not like it and can penalize both the content originator and the copier.

  • Clients will not get what they expect. Miscommunications and unhappy customers often ensue when the voice your clients ‘hear’ on your site is not your own.

  • Building a business on someone else’s content is hard. The failure rate for plagiarizers is high because there is a disconnect between who they are and how they present themselves.

What to do when someone steals your content・Kerstin Martin Squarespace Studio

So what do you do if someone has copied your content?

  1. Keep track of the evidence.
    Go to copyscape.com to see if anyone has copied your content and then make sure you take screenshots of any offending websites. I use this Chrome extension which is great for capturing whole pages that you can then save as images or PDF files.

  2. Get it resolved peacefully.
    My first response (after the initial anger and disappointment) will always be to reach out to the person and ask them to remove the duplicate content. I don’t believe in public shaming or ‘outing’ unless someone is clearly a fraud, in which case they should be held accountable. But at least in my experience, most copycats I have come across don’t have malicious intentions and as misguided as their actions are, I prefer to sort this out amicably.

  3. Send a Cease and Desist letter.
    This is a more official legal step if a person does not respond positively to your messages. I have never done this myself but I know entrepreneurs who prefer to do this instead of writing a personal note like I do. This is not a bad approach actually as it takes the emotion out of all of this. A legal step is very clear and very serious. Here is a good resource for a free Cease and Desist template.

  4. Ask the website host to take down the offending content.
    This is often referred to as a DMCA letter. DMCA stands for Digital Millennium Copyright Act and is a copyright law under which you can ask the host of the offending website to take down the plagiarized content. If the offender’s website is hosted on Squarespace you can submit a Notice of Infringement to Squarespace, click here for more info. You can also try contacting the domain registrar, this website will tell you who that is. And here is a free DMCA sample letter.

  5. Ask Google to remove them from search results.
    Apparently that is a thing that can be done! I always find dealing with Google a little overwhelming so I am not sure I would ever do this but I suppose it’s good to know that this is an option. Click here for Google’s help article on the subject.

  6. Give them a negative review on Facebook or Google.
    Personally I would probably not do this as it’s not really my style, plus it can easily escalate into a tit-for-tat situation, I have seen that happen! Also, if none of the above has resulted in a positive outcome then it is unlikely that this person will even care about negative reviews.

There are of course more powerful legal actions you can take such as a lawsuit but to be honest, that’s more for the big guns, I don’t ever see a Squarespace web designer like myself go down this route. As an HSP I would find that way too draining and it is not in my nature to be that confrontational. I will always seek a peaceful resolution.

As for the not ill-meaning copycats out there: it is ok to feel inspired by other people. But don’t steal their content. Put your energy into finding your own voice instead.



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Plagiarism and what you can do about it・Kerstin Martin Squarespace Studio