Despite billion eyes on the web, content misuse is rampant


To a journalist who takes pride in the craft of producing high-quality work, the notion of plagiarism, especially when work is to be distributed en masse on the Internet, seems foreign.

While journalists are often caught copying a few lines or otherwise taking unethical shortcuts, they rarely are ever accused of widespread, verbatim copying. However, on the web, copying is not just commonplace, but almost expected once a work goes online.

This, understandably, leads many to wonder why individuals on the web would want to do such a thing. Given the near certainty of being caught - and the ease of individual publishing on the Internet - plagiarism can seem like an act of sheer insanity.

Unfortunately, the motivations to plagiarism are often grounded in the rational realities of the web itself.

So, while plagiarism may be highly unethical, it is certainly not wholly illogical.

Money matters

The most common form of content misuse on the web currently is spam blogging. These are automatically created spam blogs that, oftentimes fill their entries by taking content from other sites on the Web, usually by scraping content from RSS feeds.

The people behind spam blogs work to create as many blogs as possible as rapidly as they can. With some applications, it is possible to create thousands of blogs in an hour, all with content from different sources.

The operators of spam blogs are motivated solely by money. Much like e-mail spammers, their hope is to rapidly create so many blogs that a small number will be picked up by the search engines and will receive enough traffic to help them start turning a profit.

How they exploit these blogs and use them to generate revenue is a tricky matter. Many simply put up ads on the sites, typically using services such as Google Adsense or Yahoo! Publisher Network. However, spamming is against the terms of service of both of these services and it is not uncommon for spammers to have their accounts terminated. Thus, many have several different accounts, often under different names.

Another trick that is commonly used is to link spam blogs to more legitimate sites with which the spammer is connected. Since search engines rank sites based in part on how many other sites link to them, this technique can cause a quality site to rise in the search results, helping it obtain more legitimate visitors and make more money.

But either way, the spammer needs a large amount of content to fill these blogs and give them the credibility that they need to fool the search engines. To this end, spammers use a variety of techniques. One of the most popular techniques is simply plagiarising content from other sources, including many news sites.

Dealing with spammers can be very difficult as they go to great lengths to hide their personal information and distance themselves from their work. The best approach, generally, is to report the spammer to their host and to the search engines. Although they might spring up again elsewhere, they are more likely to avoid your content in the future.

Prestige points

Of course, not all plagiarism is for pure profit. Many who work in the journalism and literary worlds have seen cases where a human plagiarist has taken large blocks of work, often with a few changes, and tried to pass them off as his or her own.

Some plagiarists do this once or twice while others make it a recurring habit, lifting new content almost every time they write.

This is the type of plagiarism more familiar to most journalists, the kind in which several news reporters, including Jayson Blair have been caught engaging.

On the Internet, plagiarism is driven by much the same motivations: the drive to produce higher-quality work, deadline pressure and a lack of fear about being caught.

The Internet, a newsstand boasting millions of blogs in addition to traditional news sources, is known for being fiercely competitive. The drive to put up quality work quickly and consistently pushes some to engage in unethical behaviour. Simply put, the use of other people’s work, especially that of professional journalists, is a way to get a version of the story up faster and seem official and reliable.

But if the size and the scope of the Internet is why some plagiarists copy works, it is also why they think they will never be caught. With millions of pages, the odds of someone seeing both works and remembering the exact words are very slim. While search engines can often make it easy to identify a plagiarist few seem to think of that possibility. When caught, most are genuinely surprised.

Fortunately, those who are plagiarising primarily for the purpose of prestige, once caught, tend to go away. Once exposed, there is little left for them to gain.

Accidents happen

Finally, some who plagiarise often do so completely by accident. They take smaller quotes from a work or sample images, oftentimes in ways that would be consistent with fair use/fair dealing, and either fail to provide attribution or attribute correctly.

Much of this is caused by the plagiarists listed above. If a work gets passed around heavily and displayed under many different names, it can be very difficult to determine who created the work originally. Many will attribute the work to the first place they saw it, regardless of if that site is the original.

While this is not plagiarism in and of itself, it does support the plagiarism by others and that, in turn can create other problems.

Others often plagiarise by simply omitting attribution. This can be an honest mistake, a formatting error or, in some cases, a bad edit by an editor.

These types of incidents are rare and typically only involve very small portions of a work. As such, they are usually not worth the trouble of addressing. Doing so can lead to a copyright catastrophe and there is little to be gained by moving forward.

If you suspect a plagiarism is accidental, it may well be it is best to either leave it alone or politely ask for attribution.


These are just some of the more common reasons why people plagiarise on the web. While it might seem strange for people to take an opportunity to speak to the world and use it claim credit on another’s work, many people do.

Although there are no excuses for plagiarism, understanding the motivations behind plagiarism can help you decide how to approach the cases. By targeting the reasons they take content, you can obtain both a quicker resolution and ensure the situation does not reoccur.

In the end, dealing with plagiarists sometimes means thinking like one. While that can be difficult, it can not only help you protect your content, but it can also help you look for warning signs and even prevent yourself from getting in situations where you may be tempted to toss all ethics aside.