Photo by Tim Gouw | unsplash.com (it’s a site for free images; it would be NUTS to steal an image for this article, right?)

My Week as a Plagiarism Avenger

Don’t take stuff from the people who create it. Why is that controversial?

Last week, I inadvertently stumbled into a part-time gig as “The Plagiarism Avenger” over on Linkedin.

Here’s what happened…

It all started when a connection of mine, Shannon (Stubo) Brayton (who also happens to be the CMO of LinkedIn,) posted a comment on an article that caught my attention. She said that the article in question was “eerily similar” to a piece that she had written two years previously.

I clicked on the guy’s article and I was shocked. It was a word-for-word ripoff of her piece. I knew that because I’d read her article when she first published it (it’s great, you should read it too.) I wasn’t the only one. It was widely shared as a good piece of advice for both job seekers and those looking to hire senior executives.

But this individual — an “author/management consultant/motivational speaker/life coach” based in Florida — had passed it off as his own. She was not credited in any way.

Let’s just pause here for a moment to admire the brass balls it takes to rip off the CMO of LinkedIn and post the article ON LINKEDIN.

It’s also one of the stupidest things I’ve ever seen.

A quick glance of the guy’s profile showed that he had more than 30,000 followers and 72 articles posted on LinkedIn. I was curious if it was his regular M.O. to (ahem) “borrow” from other authors.

So I spent a few minutes copying and pasting some of his articles into a “Plagiarism Checker” (thanks Google) and was not surprised to find three more rip offs among his most recent posts.

Each was from a different source — an Arizona law firm’s blog post, a Kansas-based consultant’s website, a magazine about wine — and the original articles were each from several years ago. But they were clearly copy-and-pasted from a bylined piece of writing. None of them credited the original author.

I didn’t dig further and go through all 72 posts, but I’m betting that my plagiarism hit rate for his work wasn’t just an amazing coincidence.

Scrolling through the guy’s LinkedIn articles, there were, literally, thousands of “thumbs ups” and complementary comments, many of which lauded HIM for his insight and “well written” thoughts.

I clicked on the guy’s website too and his articles were a substantial part of his “thought leadership” presence. He even publishes a regular newsletter, leveraging his articles as a way to build credibility.

In other words, he was passing off the content as his own, using it to enhance his reputation and, one would assume, drum up business.

THAT. IS. SHITTY.

As someone who spends a lot of time working to write original pieces, this type of theft really irritates me.

So, I posted comments on each of his posts that contained plagiarized content, tagging the real authors and linking to their original articles. I also made a comment on the guy’s twitter feed.

By the weekend, all 72 articles had been removed from his LinkedIn profile. I’m unclear whether that was the result of the original authors reporting the violation to LinkedIn and THEY stepped in and removed his articles, or if the guy felt the heat of attention (maybe even a little shame?) and took preemptive action before “the fuzz” could close in.

But he’s clearly aware that he jig is up. He blocked me on Twitter…then shut down his Twitter account…and this morning I saw that he’s closed down his website, too.

An All-Too-Common Problem

When I posted a comment about my brief foray as a LinkedIn Crusader for Justice, it clearly struck a nerve as the post has 80,000+ views and elicited responses from around the globe.

I was surprised (and a little saddened, to be honest) to find out how common this problem really is. Scrolling through the responses, there were many who reported having their work ripped off.

Seattle-based consultant Leslie A. Larson shared her own experience with this issue and posted a great piece that she wrote called, “The Thin Line Between Share and a Theft.”

(See how easy it is to give credit to somebody else’s work?)

But one (since deleted) comment fascinated me. It was from a 23-year-old programmer in New York who wrote, “I see both sides of the coin.” And he explained that he’d once created a site that took articles from other sources and aggregated them as a way to try and generate AdSense revenue. He admitted they were “plagiarized and the site was super spammy” and that he’d only shut it down because it didn’t generate as much money as he wanted.

In a back and forth exchange with him, he seemed genuinely unaware that taking content from the Internet was a big deal. It wasn’t until I explained to him that I didn’t think advocating for plagiarism on a professional networking site was the best career move that he deleted the whole exchange.

It made me wonder how much of this is generational.

Not to jump on the Millenials, but they’ve grown up with the Internet in a way that I did not. The whole idea of “ownership” is, shall we say, looser to them. I wonder how many people think, “Hey, if it’s on the Internet, it’s fair game.”

For example, much has been written about how the music industry has changed and how lots of young people don’t even understand the concept of paying for music anymore. (Side soapbox: I’m old school. BUY the album, damnit! The fractional pennies the artist gets from the Spotify or Pandora listen aren’t enough. But I’ll save that for another post…)

And don’t get me started on freebooting or this guy or this guy or any of the online joke stealers.

But to be fair, the guy who sent me down this rabbit hole to begin with, Mr. Life-Coach-Plagiarizer-Extraordinaire, was most certainly NOT a Millenial — he’s a shady, semi-retired dude in his 60s. Even my four-year-old, when he overheard me telling the story to my wife, piped up with, “Stealing is not good, dad!” Whatever your age, it’s no excuse for bad behavior.

Do The Right Thing

This doesn’t seem controversial: we should honor the creators of stuff. At the very least, that means giving credit where credit is due. If you reference somebody’s work, cite it properly.

And if you’re going to USE somebody’s work in a project where you’re getting paid, you should compensate them fairly for it. Period.

And if you don’t, beware! We may just form a superhero-like league of plagiarism vigilantes to keep you honest. 😊


About the Author

John Kovacevich is a creative director and writer based in San Francisco. Poetically, he suspects that this post will probably get ripped off and reposted under somebody else’s byline, at some point.

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