7 Ways to Respond to Plagiarism as the Content Creator

ski-masked man at computerIf you weren’t a content marketer, you wouldn’t know, but content creation is hard work. It’s not just the long hours of research, writing, and editing. It’s the always-on mode your brain is in, looking for insight and inspiration everywhere. “Could this be an idea for a blog post? No, I’m just reading the menu at the Olive Garden.” If you do content, you know what I mean. That’s why we get angry when people copy us. It’s happened to me many times. Sadly, plagiarism in the world of the content creator is very common. It’s easy to find if you know where to look. It’s so easy that I should caution you about reading this post: One likely outcome is outrage, since it’s very possible that you’re a victim. Still reading? Ok, but you’ve been warned.

It starts small

Our story begins with an email I got two years ago from a web design company in North Carolina. Basically, it said that a small company in Wisconsin had plagiarized its content — and some of mine as well. (Actually, there were three of us who had been copied in the letter.) The other two businesses already had a plan to respond, which involved sending some incendiary emails, but taking no real legal action. Once these emails were sent, the offending website made a lame excuse and took down the content. Happy ending, right? Not quite.

How to find plagiarized content

During the process, I asked how they happened to notice the offender. It was a tiny company. There was no way they could have stumbled across it. How’d they find it? It turns out that there are easy, free, fast ways to find plagiarized copy, also known as duplicate content. For example, there’s Copyscape. Just type in a URL and this tool will show you all the places where your page has been copied. That’s it. Technology makes it so easy to find plagiarism, you’d have to be an idiot to try to get away with it. So I thought I’d give it a try. I put in the address of my home page and clicked submit. When I saw the results, I almost fell out of my chair.

They copied our entire site!

There were about a dozen websites that had copied the text from our home page. That’s not good. However, amongst those was a site that went far beyond that. In this instance, our layout, our navigation, our images — everything was there, with only minor changes. It was like seeing our site in a fun-house mirror. It was published by a web design and marketing company in another city, and it was a blatant fraud.

What to do about plagiarism

Plagiarism is a crime. Federal copyright laws (among other regulations) protect content creators. However, finding a lawyer may not get you far. I recommend taking the following steps (in this exact order) until the problem has been fixed or your rage subsides — whichever comes first. Tip: If you want proof in your pocket that you wrote the copy first, use the Wayback Machine at Archive.org. It’s easy to show that you are the originator. If Copyscape is Exhibit A, the Wayback Machine is Exhibit B. Time to make your case:
  1. Pick up the phone, if you can find a number: I highly recommend this. It’s good to be direct. It’s also fun to hear a plagiarist squirm. Just tell them what they copied, how you found it, and ask what they plan to do. In 90 percent of the cases, they’ll stammer an excuse, apologize, and then take down the copied text. 
  1. Send a “Cease and Desist” letter: This is step one in the legal process. The cost is low and it shows you’re serious. We’ve included a sample letter below. This should get a quick response. It might be contrite. It might be rude, but they’ll likely remove the content and the process will end here. 
  1. Notify their chamber of commerce: The mission of chambers is to promote and support good business. A good chamber will want to know if a member is taking shortcuts or breaking the law. 
  1. Write a one-star review on Google: This may sound extreme, but there is nothing unethical about giving a poor review to a sketchy business. I would reserve this for plagiarists who refuse to remove the copied content. 
  1. Send their host a “take down” letter: This is the remedy for copyright infringement in the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. Use a look-up service to find the host and atemplate for the take down letter. Then just fax it in. 
  1. Report them to Google: Legal action is serious; Google blacklisting is cataclysmic. Welcome to the nuclear option. Here’s the request form for removal of content from Google. 
  1. Sue for damages: When all else fails, we have the courts (though honestly, the costs will likely outweigh the benefits).
Note: The Better Business Bureau will not get involved. It is concerned only with issues between businesses and their customers. Incidentally, the company that copied our website has an A+ rating in the BBB!

What we did

To make it official, we had our attorney handle the communication. There were letters, phone calls, excuses, and promises. The initial response was ignorance, not denial. They told us they had outsourced their design (strange for a web design company to outsource their own website) and their vendor must have copied us. Eventually, they changed the design and the text. It still looked like an evil twin to our own site, but we dropped it. Our total cost in legal fees was around $2,500. We moved on. (If you’re interested in the gritty details, including screenshots, you can see the full story here.) Was it worth a few thousand dollars? It’s an interesting question. It depends on how damaging the plagiarism is. Aside from branding and copyright protection issues, there are a few marketing implications.

Is getting plagiarized harmful in terms of SEO? What about duplicate content?

Not usually. The duplicate content penalty does exist, but it is widely misunderstood. As long as Google can tell that your version came first, you should be OK. In my experience, you are only at risk of a penalty if both these criteria are present:
  • The duplicate versions went live at almost the exact time as the original.
  • There are hundreds of duplicate versions.
I once saw a site removed from Google’s index completely, but it was because a lazy PR firm copied the home page of a newly launched website into a press release. They pushed it through the online newswires, and instantly there were hundreds of versions of the brand new site. The website was manually removed from Google. Blacklisted! But that’s a story for another post… Legitimate content curation, and even spam-like content scrapers aren’t likely to affect your SEO. If anything, there could be an indirect benefit. If there are links back to your other content in an article that gets scraped, there will be new links back to your site (though if links from low-quality sites in random Asian countries is part of your content plan, you have bigger problems).

What about “spun” content? Is that bad?

If the article is significantly changed, it’s not plagiarism. If 75 percent of it is rewritten, it will pass the test for originality with both Google and the law. Don’t be tempted by content spinning software, though. That’s spam. There is such a thing as ethical content spinning. Rewriting something from a new perspective is a way to create new content quickly. Professor Handley would call this “reimagining content.” Better yet, recreate the piece in another format (see the Periodic Table of Contentfor ideas).

Sample Cease and Desist letter

Just last week, a friend of mine, Susan Silver, discovered plagiarism of her own site, Argentum Strategy. The letter she sent is a good example of a response. With her permission, I offer it below. Please note that before sending this, Susan contacted her attorney and got his permission to “take his name in vain.” sample letter

Ongoing protection

If you want to monitor ongoing plagiarism, Copyscape has a paid option called CopySentry that will email you a report. I tried this and found evidence of plagiarism once or twice per month, on average. Eventually, I wrote a standard email, and usually, I’d hear back with an apology. (I’ll admit — eventually we got bored and stopped monitoring.) What about you? Ever been tempted to copy a beautiful bit of copy? Ever been plagiarized? Let’s hear your story — but please make it original!

Author: Andy Crestodina

Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design companyin Chicago. Andy is also an instructor for the Content Marketing Institute Online Training and Certification program. You can find Andy on  and Twitter.