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Friday, June 16, 2006

Content theft...Ignorance isn't bliss when it comes to plagiarism and copyright infringement...

I recently posted about the issue of content theft and argued that net culture, as evidenced by the circumstances surrounding the old Napster and other indicators, has a large element that simply doesn't care about intellectual property rights. In fact, some among that subgroup are actually proud of their thieving.

I still think those observations are valid, but I thought I would return to the topic today to discuss another cause of content theft: ignorance. Grab a drink and strap in, this could get long...

Please note that I am not using "ignorance" as a pejorative. It's not a synonym for "stupid." I am referring to people who simply don't have an extensive knowledge base about these matters.

Take, for instance, this post from a very popular forum on the topic of content use:

"hello.since content is the major buzzword in adsense around which everything revolves so is it possible to write content from differnt sources of books and magaizines .or one bought from amazon.com.will it be infringemnt of copywright if i purchase a book or magazines and write content from them mixing some of my own.plz suggest."

Yikes. Paraphrased: "Is it okay if I buy a book and then copy it with a few changes?"

After that question was asked, plenty of people responded. Most seemed to be on the right track, but there did seem to be come confusion between copyrights and plagiarism, etc. The discussion veered off into a discussion of public domain materials, too. Finally, the original poster, after reading all of this, stated:

"thanks a lot all those who have provided valuable guidance in this matter.it will help a lot.i have definitely written my own content but i want to make my site big with load of information therfore i wanted to use other stuffs buit didnt knew much abt copywright issue. ok one thing more is usinmg the content of general magazines also infrigement violations."

Paraphrased: "Thanks for input. I don't know alot about copyright issues. We've covered books, but can I steal content from magazines?"


After reading this, it occurred to me that the content theft problem is not just the combination of rebel/hacker/cool kids sticking it to the man and greedy moneymakers scraping to build Adsense sites. As much as anything, it may just be a matter of ignorance.

The poster in the referenced forum thread didn't know a thing about copyright. In fact, the issue was so new to him/her that even after being attacked for the "steal it from Amazon" plan, he/she was asking "what about stealing from magazines?"

I have a client who got in touch with me a few weeks ago about doing a site re-write. He's a smart guy. He runs his own business in a field that requires a great deal of specialized knowledge and an ability to work effectively with the public.

He advised me that I could take a look at his current site for some additional guidance, but that he had just lifted most of the material from other sources. He was getting in touch with me (I had done some work for a friend of his in the same business) because he had been told that little bit of content snagging was a "no-no."

Remember--this is a very smart guy. He is just ignorant about intellectual property, plagiarism and copyrights. I am sure he is not alone.

We also have the fact that younger people are capable of building sites ranging from MySpace pages to complicated full websites. Unfortunately, the development of their design and programming skills has outpaced their understanding of plagiarism and copyright. They may be stealing, but they are probably more ignorant than evil.

Additionally, there is probably a cultural element to this. I am willing to wager that those of us in the U.S., a nation where private property rights are at the very heart of legal, social and political lives, are probably better acquainted with these issues than many people from other parts of the world that don't have a similar outlook or focus.

I don't know how private property is culturally perceived in former Soviet republics that languished under communist control or in the rapidly-growing economies southeast Asian nations, but I have a feeling that views regarding these matters are probably a bit different than my own. I have no idea about their understanding of the Berne Convention and intellectual property, etc., but I know that most Americans--who live in a "property rights" country--don't even know that much.

Here's what I think all of this means in terms of content writing and purchasing content:

Unless and until ignorance about the ethical and legal implications of content theft are erased, the problem is going to grow. That education may have to come through repeated attempts to squash plagiarism and a consistent effort on the part of those who "get it" to intercede against content theft when it is spotted. It should also involve some outreach--there's nothing wrong with using an iron fist on the left hand and a velvet glove on the right.

I believe that those of us in the content writing community should work to increase awareness and responsibility due to our unique understanding of the problem and its ramifications. I also think it's in our own best interests from a business perspective. Less content theft should, in theory, lead to some increased demand for freelance content writing services.

Ignorance is bliss--but only for the ignorant.

It's a pain in the ass for the rest of us.

In this case, ignorance decreases the value of written work, it creates an aura of distrust, and as content theft continues it begins to create an "everyone's doin' it" mentality that works to snowball the problem while decreasing demand for original writing.