Tools for rooting out Web plagiarism, copyright violations

Determine the originality of material posted on a Web site--or in a school term paper--by running its text through the checkers at free and fee-based plagiarism-detection services.

Some misguided souls in the Internet publishing world still consider all online material as being in the public domain. A recent example of this cluelessness is the editor of a food journal who stole an article that included a recipe for apple pie and then claimed to be doing the article's author a favor by reprinting it without the author's permission or any remuneration, as described by Helen A.S. Popkin on the MSNBC.com TechnoLog.

( See a related blog by CNET contributor Lance Whitney for more on the story.)

For the record, copyrights do indeed extend to material created for and posted to the Internet. Online publisher Brad Templeton's article, 10 Big Myths About Copyright Explained, actually covers 11 misapprehensions about online copyrights. The article was originally written in 1994 and was updated in October 2008. The page includes a succinct description of fair use and points out the importance of intent and potential damage to the original work.

Schools have been at the forefront of plagiarism prevention. By scanning student papers via services such as Turnitin, schools can determine the originality of the material. Turnitin also provides a peer review and assistance with grading. Students can check their own work by using Turnitin's WriteCheck service, which costs from $5 for one paper up to 5,000 words to $50 for one paper up to 200,000 words or 40 single-paper credits.

According to a study released last January by the National Bureau of Economic Research (PDF), fear of detection may not be the best approach to preventing plagiarism among students. The results of the study indicate that educating students about the importance of academic integrity and what constitutes plagiarism is the most effective deterrent.

In an interview on the Inside Higher Ed site, Swarthmore College Associate Professor of Economics Thomas S. Dee says the educational approach to plagiarism prevention is more effective than either the "moral suasion approach" or the "law-and-order approach." However, Dee points out that few teachers currently consider educating students about plagiarism to be one of their "core responsibilities."

Lack of concern for copyrights abounds
In the case of the purloined apple pie recipe, the editor who stole the recipe stated in her misguided response to the author that "the Web is considered 'public domain.'" Unfortunately, this misapprehension is widely shared--and often by high-level executives who should know better.

Last month I wrote about a senior executive at a company I used to work for who stole huge chunks of material from more than a dozen different Web sites for use in a report he "wrote" for a federal-agency client. I stumbled across the plagiarism when I was editing the report and was looking for the definition of an acronym the author used--or rather the site the author stole from used--in the report.

After discovering this lifted material, I was convinced to run other selected passages of his report through Google, which led to the discovery of the many other copyright violations in the report.

By the way, the first thing the author said after I pointed out the plagiarism to him was "Don't worry about it." I told him he couldn't submit a report with his name on it as the author when in fact most of the report was written by others who were uncredited. He then asked me whether I used a plagiarism-detection program to spot his transgression (my word, not his). He seemed to be more interested in avoiding detection in the future than in writing his own reports.

Find sites using your copyrighted material without permission
Years ago, I would regularly enter the titles of my blog posts or selected sections of their text in Google's search box and look for unauthorized use of the material. Almost every time I did so I discovered at least one site that had scraped the content and placed it on their site without attribution and without a link back to the original article.

If the site provides contact information, you could ask that the material be removed, but policing unauthorized use of your blog posts or other Web content can soon become a full-time job. Even worse, the effort will likely be futile because your only option may be to sue the violators in civil court. However, according to the Chilling Effects FAQ on piracy and copyright infringement, copyright violations with willful intent to profit are punishable under U.S. federal law by up to 10 years in prison.

The simplest way to search for unauthorized reuse of written material is to copy a sentence or two, paste it into the Google search box with quote marks before and after, and scroll through the resulting links looking for copyright violators. The free Plagiarism Checker site provides a text box into which you can paste the text (up to 32 words) and then click the Search button to view the Google or Yahoo search results.

Plagiarism Checker main page
The free Plagiarism Checker site lets you search for unauthorized use of written material or entire Web pages. screenshot by Dennis O'Reilly/CNET

The site also lets you search for copied Web pages, print handouts with material relating to copyright protection, and report plagiarism to Google, Yahoo, other Web services, and even to teachers via e-mail. Unfortunately, the site, which was developed and managed by a teacher named Darren Hom, appears not to have been updated since 2006. However, the site's search box still works, and the plagiarism resources on the site are still relevant.

Even with such detection tools, the fear of being caught may be a less-effective deterrent to Web plagiarism than educating people about the value of and need for copyright protection of our writings, photographs, and other intellectual property. We can't assume that people are going to do the right thing unless we've taught them what that right thing is.

About the author

    Dennis O'Reilly began writing about workplace technology as an editor for Ziff-Davis' Computer Select, back when CDs were new-fangled, and IBM's PC XT was wowing the crowds at Comdex. He spent more than seven years running PC World's award-winning Here's How section, beginning in 2000. O'Reilly has written about everything from web search to PC security to Microsoft Excel customizations. Along with designing, building, and managing several different web sites, Dennis created the Travel Reference Library, a database of travel guidebook reviews that was converted to the web in 1996 and operated through 2000.

     

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