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Monday, June 12, 2006

Do webmasters need help from Lars Ulrich? Can content theft be deterred? An alternative to inspiring t-shirts...

Every day, I encounter more and more complaints on the part of webmasters about unscrupulous scrapers and "cut & pasters" stealing written content. Those acts of outright theft and plagiarism dillute the value of unique content and represent an unethical (and generally illegal) practice. Content theft appears to be reaching epidemic proportions.

That really shouldn't come as a surprise. If you'll have Sherman set the wayback machine for +/- 2001, you will will undoubtedly remember folks like Dr. Dre and Metallica trying to leverage the power of the RIAA to shut down Napster. Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, I believe, even personally delivered a list of over a quarter of a million Napster subscribers to their headquarters, claiming all of them had pirated Metallica's work and should be removed from the subscriber base. There were lawsuits, press conferences and (eventually) a fat settlement for many of the RIAA artists involved. Napster is a shell of the powerhouse it was back in the days when anyone could rip-off and rip without fear of being the next target of litigation.

Yet music theft survives...

A t-shirt says "I steal music off the internet." An iPod buyer states, "When I first opened my iPod nano, there was a clear sticker on it that said 'Don't steal music.' I thought that was extremely amusing."

Is it any surprise that the online atmosphere that has created and perpetuated a pro-theft mindset with respect to recorded content would also play host to a large contingency of people who are AOK with stealing your written work? Not really. There is a content theft culture on the net. From golden oldies to new CDs, from classic films to this summer's blockbusters, from front-page company descriptions to directory-submitted articles, the internet sometimes feels like a den of thieves.

And when it comes to text, solving theft is extremely tough. At least the RIAA could target Napster and other bigger P2P sites. At least the recording artists had a trade industry to fight for them. Webmasters don't have those luxuries in fighting the battle against stolen content. There is no large clearinghouse to attack and those who are building sites don't have any unifying organization to take up the issue.

I don't want to sound like an RIAA super-fan. Suing twelve-year-old Australian kids probably isn't a great strategy to convert people to your viewpoint. The heavy handedness of the organization and some of its tactics have probably done more to inspire those "I steal music..." t-shirts than just about anything. However, at least the RIAA was able to try to do something to fight intellectual property theft.

Webmasters are left to self-defense. DMCA complaints, C&D letters, constant checking with Copyscape and other tools. Even when they find offenders, it can be tough to get a satisfactory result. Plus, the whole situation is reminiscent of a game of Whack-a-Mole. As soon as you konk one thief on the head, another is popping up somewhere. Even if one had Lars Ulrich standing beside him or her with a mallet in each hand, the pair would still be facing a losing battle, it seems.

So, what can a webmaster do? First, I believe this war is worth fighting and I commend those who follow guys like Jonathan Bailey over at Plagiarism Today in standing up to the content thieves. Second, I think it might be time for those in the business to start organizing in some way to lobby for changes that will make it easier to prevent/crush content theft. I am not referring simply to online solutions, but to legislative changes, too.

In the short run, though, there's very little hope of slamming the brakes on content theft. Meanwhile, as search engines get wiser to link manipulation strategies and continue to devalue on-page SEO in favor of quality content, the need to keep producing more and more material grows unabated. That's a tough situation: You must have new content to compete, but you also have to realize that a good percentage of your work might be stolen.

So, in the short run it seems like one of the only workable strategies is to seek out consistent sources of fresh, unique content and to try to produce it faster than anyone can dillute its value. Pumping more and more content is just about the only way to stay ahead of the curve.

That might just involve dealing with someone like me who produces new content. Yes, I know my argument is incredibly self-serving, but it does have an underlying truth. Content remains king no matter how many pretenders to the throne pop up every day. Until some workable means of either stopping content theft or finding a way to eliminate its deleterious impact on content value are implemented, webmasters are going to have to keep on churning out good stuff as quickly as they can.

Find someone you can trust to produce good content quickly and at a fair rate. Continue to whack individual moles and to press for changes, too. And, if you have ever found yourself listening to an illegally-obtained MP3 while bemoaning scraper sites, try to start setting an example.