Ah, the internet. As duncatra points out on her Star Wars news site Club Jade, the vast ethereal series of pipes and tubes is “a wild and crazy place, populated by people who are perhaps a little unknowledgeable about the basics of a civil society.” Of course, one of those basics in civil society is that you shouldn’t exactingly copy someone else’s work without crediting them. From a copyright perspective, it is illegal. From any other perspective, it’s definitely vaults over the party foul line, straight over the “not cool” zone, and lands right smack in the middle of the actions I think should reserve you a place in Shepherd Book’s “special hell.”
I didn’t know about it, but apparently there are folks out there who can’t think originally and leech off other people’s RSS feeds, throw a fancy HTML/CSS skin on them, and call the content their own. But there are others who run sites that physically snag various people’s postings word for word and pass them off as their own. To his/her misfortune, one of these types ran afoul of Dunc. You see, the owner/operator of SWTORstrategies.com copied at least 17 posts written by Dunc – and numerous posts from other Star Wars blogs – without attributing the work. The posts linked back to Club Jade, but made no mention of the author.
Dunc makes a great point in her post about the function of a “via” or “source” credit, which you see a lot in blog posts. “Via” or “source” is equivalent to a thank you these days, and is not a “written by” credit. It’s where you found the information and wrote your own copy based on that raw data. It’s a very clear distinction.
The “author” at the site, “sQren”, has been somewhat hospitable about removing posts after the source author complains, but this really shouldn’t have been an issue to begin with. Somewhere along the line, people made the leap that everything not directly associated with a big name corporation is fair game for use. Plagiarism is not just limited to copying information from encyclopedias for a term paper. Any time you copy without attribution, it’s wrong.
Some folks in the comment thread on Dunc’s post commented that this violation of intellectual property was akin to the rash of file sharing that has the MPAA and RIAA up in arms. I say yes and no. With file sharing, the participants are gaining content without paying for it. In this case, they are gaining content without paying for it, and passing it off as their own. When you illegally download a Metallica song, you’re typically not claiming that you wrote or performed the song. Here, sQren was indirectly claiming that he/she wrote the original content in each article.
Similarly, another reader pointed out that this strategy does provide more visibility for the people who work on the content. I contend that such visibility is meaningless if the content is not properly attributed. After all, if I visit SWTORstrategies and read a well-constructed post without attributions, how do I know that Bryan Young or Dunc wrote it originally? Without attributions, I have no choice but to believe that sQren wrote it. I would have no reason to visit Big Shiny Robot or Club Jade because everything points to sQren being the final source for everything I need on that topic, which robs those violated by this thief of my patronage. These talents in the blogosphere do this for free and for the passion of their fandom. The only reward they get is the good feeling for helping fellow fans. Because of this, some people claim that this doesn’t really matter. If that’s true, then feel free to write my doctoral thesis for me when I eventually go back to school. It’s the same difference.
It’s not the motivations that I’m concerned about when it comes to plagiarism in the blogosphere. I’m concerned about the hard work writers put forth that is disregarded for someone else’s convenience. Our end goal is to have worked on something for someone else’s enjoyment, whether it’s a blog post, an article for a podcast, or a 50,000+ word novel. Plagiarizers disregard that hard work – let’s not kid ourselves, it’s hard work to write anything coherent; the longer the word count, the harder it gets – and take it as their good fortune that someone else pushed the boulder up the mountain for them.
Now, it looks like SWTORstrategies has started doing their own work instead of copying off their neighbors. Nevertheless, I firmly support Dunc’s efforts to bring these thieves into the light of day via social media. Consider it a little guerrilla-style effort to let the SWTORstragtegies folks know that what they do is not welcome. By Dunc’s suggestion, if you have a Twitter account, you can participate by tweeting the following: “Hey @swtorstrategies, how about you write your own posts? http://bit.ly/bSZSaC / http://bit.ly/brVG40 #plagiarism”. Just like this. Is it overkill? Maybe, but plagiarism is something I'm incredibly sensitive to, so I'm not likely to show them much mercy. The point is to get it all over their replies feed so that they can see how unwelcome their strategy is. Hopefully the point will get driven so far into their brains that they never, ever consider it again.
Is it really that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things? Probably not, but as Dunc so eloquently puts it, “[I]t’s not just about copying and pasting – it’s about having the decency to not take someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. And I’m not going to let that fly just ‘because it’s the internet.’ It doesn’t matter what the subject is: There’s no suitable excuse for plagiarism, particularly when it’s this pathetic.”