Fan Communities, Online Content and the Definition of Plagiarism

by Kat French |
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Kat French 

 

Kat French

 

I may or may not have mentioned this here previously, but I am a ridiculously crazy fan of ABC’s Lost.  Last week, there was a bit of a blowup among the online fan community.  I’m mentioning it here because it highlights some important issues that bloggers and other new media producers need to consider. 

 

plagiarize: 

1. to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own : use  (another’s production) without crediting the source

2. to commit literary theft : present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

Okay, let’s double back a little and share the story from this week.  As with all conflict on the internet, there’s the long version, and the really long version.  So for your benefit, here’s the Reader’s Digest extra-short version. 

Erika Olson, a freelance writer and Lost fan, has been producing a successful Lost recap blog since the first season.  Her posts are regularly featured (with her permission and proper credit) on other Lost fan sites.  Her writing is funny and engaging, and she has solid theories.  So solid, in fact, that a video blogger began quoting large chunks of her blog posts verbatim–without crediting any source. 

Another fan noticed the marked similarities in the vlogger’s content and the most recent post on Erika’s blog (which is under a Creative Commons license) and notified her.  She requested that he either remove the plagiarized content, or cite her as a source.  When that request failed, other Lost bloggers began taking a closer look and discovered that the vlogger had been stealing text content from multiple sources, and reading it as his own material in his videos.  

Flame wars erupted between the vlogger’s fans and fans of various other fan blogs and sites. (In fact, there’s probably at least a nugget of a sociological post in this story about what happens when fans of something get lots of fans of their own.   But I’m probably not going to go there today.)

As of this time, “SeanieB’s” YouTube account has been suspended, as several bloggers submitted copyright infringement complaints to YouTube.   One last note of interest in this story, some information indicates that the vlogger in question is a college student pursuing a degree in video production. 

So what’s worth discussing in all this?

First of all, “free” content doesn’t mean “free to steal and present as your own work.”  Plagiarism and copyright infringement are illegal whether or not the original source is available for free.  Much is being made in this kerfuffle of the fact that neither the blogger or the vlogger appear to really be directly profiting from the material.  In terms of legality, that is neither here nor there.  The blogger posted a copyright statement clearly on her blog.  The vlogger ignored it.  Case closed—he broke the law. 

Since the blogger is a freelance writer, there’s the argument that even a blog produced without intent to directly profit effectively becomes part of your “social media portfolio” of work.  It has value because it demonstrates your ability to write a blog, build an audience, etc. 

Further, if in fact the vlogger is a media student, is it an indication that colleges and universities aren’t doing an adequate job of conveying that plagiarism is still plagiarism if the original source material is on the social web?  I would like to think that it’s more likely the vlogger was clear that what he was doing was unethical and illegal, but was operating under the “what YouTube doesn’t know won’t hurt me” principle.    

But it’s still worth bringing up for discussion:  new media production is a career field rife with legal concerns and implications—but most of the people interested in that field are creative types who aren’t interested in studying law.  Of the schools that are offering degree programs, is the curriculum coverage of those legal issues adequate to turn out informed professionals?   

Further, since many of the people who are currently in the field are self-taught, what resources are available for them to get an adequate grounding in copyright law to know where they can and can’t tread?  I for one really appreciate Sarah Bird, Esquire’s posts on SEOmoz for this very reason.  In fact, if I were going to do another “Quick ‘n Dirty Guide,” copyright and fair use in new media would probably be a pretty popular topic, I think. (While we’re on the subject, chime in on the comments if you agree with that, or if there’s some other burning question topic you’d like me to explore).

On another note, there is no “copyright police” trolling the internet looking for blatant plagiarism.  The onus is on you as a content producer to make sure that your material isn’t being stolen, and to take appropriate action when you discover that it is.  You have a responsibility to call content thieves out because no one else is going to do it, and it’s pretty likely they are or will steal from others as long as they’re getting away with it. 

There are solutions like Copyscape that can help tip you off if your work is being ripped off, but in a case like this one, where the reused content is presented in video or audio format rather than text, those solutions are limited in how they can help.  In this case, it’s smart to develop relationships with others who are producing content in your niche.  Not only is being well-connected in your niche a good way to make sure you get notified if something fishy is going on, but if your private, one-on-one requests for copyright compliance get ignored, you have some “bigger guns” to pull into the fray and call attention to the content thief.  

The last point of discussion I’m going to bring up here is that I do think it’s interesting that there is more or less a cottage industry that springs up around traditional media content that develops a cult following.  Blogs, vlogs and podcasts often lead to books—either via self-publishing or traditional book deals. 

To some degree, the social web really is proving to be a place where aspiring creatives and content producers can get vetted and build an audience that leads to more traditional media production opportunities.  In other words, the internet probably isn’t going to replace Hollywood, but this year’s bloggers and new media producers may very well replace the writers in Hollywood tomorrow.  It’s an interesting thought, at least.  

 


About the Author

Kat French

Kat French is the Client Services and Content Manager at SME Digital. An exceptional writer, Kat combines creativity with an agile, get-it-done attitude across a broad range of experience in content strategy, copywriting, community management and social media marketing. She has worked with national brands like Maker's Mark, Daytona Beach Tourism, CafePress and more.