Plagiarism–It’ll Probably Happen to You

The other day I was looking to see if an old document of mine was cached on the Internet. The original URL is long gone. I tried inputting my leading title; that didn’t work. Yet, I remembered key words and a few key phrases that I used. After a number of attempts I experienced a WTF moment.

I looked closer at this document that I found. The more I looked, the more it became familiar to me, though modified. Someone had taken a work of mine, cut blocks out of it (verbatim), interspersed them into their document, used part of my table of contents (again, verbatim), bibliography, etc., and to top it all off, didn’t give any credit to the person that they ripped their intellectual property from–me.

In 2003, I posted my graduate thesis on-line with the intent to disseminate information for those in academia, with the explicit statement: “Please give credit to those authors cited.” Note: This couldn’t be missed, as you had to click on the link (and presumably read it) before you went to the next page.

My work: pas (Short for Prenominal Adjective Strings)

I searched and found the culprit. I found the link where the plagiarized work was, and downloaded it for a more thorough assessment.

Website of the plagiarized content:
Copy of plagiarized pas in case the above link doesn’t work. (Note: I made this DOCX into a PDF.)

Apparently, the person was too much of a loser and too lazy to do their own research, so they took my work. I made a quick estimate. They used at least 50% (actually, more) of my work and simply pasted it into theirs, then added around it–without any credit given to me or the links I had (copious references) that could be tracked back to me or my university professors or institution. That’s plagiarism.


To be clear, here are a some definitions of what plagiarism is:

  1. Plagiarize [1913 Webster]: To steal or purloin from the writings of another; to appropriate without due acknowledgement (the ideas or expressions of another).
  2. plagiarize [WordNet 2006]: v 1: take without referencing from someone else’s writing or speech; of intellectual property.
  3. plagiarize []:
    v. To use and pass off (the ideas or writings of another) as one’s own.
    v. To appropriate for use as one’s own passages or ideas from (another).
    v. To put forth as original to oneself the ideas or words of another.

So basically, using Webster’s definition, it’s theft–stealing someone else’s property.

Instances when a person would use someone else’s work

So, what if we use ideas from others? Is it plagiarism? It depends on how much of another author’s work is used and in what way. If the author’s work is blatantly copied and pasted, then branded by someone else without giving the original author credit–Yes, that’s theft. But if that same chunk of text is used, yet acknowledged to be the work of the creator, then most authors would consider that fair.

It’s commonly acceptable to use someone else’s work when you give credit to their work. It also lends credibility to the borrower when the intent of using another person’s work is made clear, i.e, explaining why you’re using their work. Are you critiquing their work, their ideas? Are you using their work as an example or illustration to enhance or promote your own ideas? However, even if it appears that borrowing is “acceptable,” many authors demand written consent if you’re going to use their intellectual works. Those authors often have it conspicuously written on each web page of theirs. However, that won’t stop losers that steal.

How would you look to see if your work has been misappropriated?

If you want to search if someone has deliberately taken your work, there are plenty of on-line checkers available. Simply type “plagiarism tools” into your search engine. Or, (as I did) take a sentence of your writing (truncate it to 5-10 words), put it in quotes, and put that into your search engine.

When I taught at CSUF, teachers were kept up to date of plagiarism tools. Nowadays, search engines are more sophisticated. There’s a strong chance that search engines find those key words, phrases, or sentences you inputted.

What can you do to prevent your work from being ripped off?

Not much. Once an author posts their webpage on-line, many believe that content is theirs for the taking. Should you copyright your work? That’s not necessary since your written work is owned by you as soon as it’s written. See U.S. Copyright Protections: 10 Q & A. Another good source is to download Circular 38B from the U.S. Copyright Office. (By the way, if you do post a written work using a copyright mark, be sure it’s used properly. Meaning, format it correctly. It’ll give you added protection.)

Most of us assume that using a password protected document, or using Adobe’s Digimarc or DMCA Watermarker copyright protection can help. It could, to a point. But when it comes down to it, despite the tricks and software available to get around these security features, the thief only has to print out a hard copy (even if they buy it from you), scan it, modify it, then they’ve got a good enough copy to resell it as theirs.

Then what’s the point in trying to secure or be able to trace your document? The intent is to discourage someone from stealing your work. Look at it this way: The more security you put on your documents, the harder it is to steal. If your work is too much of a hassle to steal, thieves simply will move on to easier victims. But if your document is good enough in quality to be plagiarized, and if they’re determined enough, there’s little that can be done to stop someone from stealing your work. That’s the reality in today’s digital age.

If you have a website, there are CSS tricks you can use to prevent your content from being copied. If it’s an e-book theft resulting in loss of income, then there are many sources for advice. Many authors that have experienced that and have written about it, while providing their personal advice. For one:

Taking away their incentive to steal

Preventive measures might deter people from stealing your work if they knew the consequences, explains Dupli Checker ( From their section “Deter Users from Plagiarizing,” they explain, “For users to prevent plagiarism, they first need to be aware of the use and consequences of plagiarism. Knowing the consequences will reduce the likelihood of deliberate attempts to copy others’ work.”

This may work for people that are sitting on the fence, but I believe the person that’s determined to rip you off, their mind is pretty well made up. These type of people are only sorry after they get caught.

What to do about copyright infringement on the web?

After you get over the initial shock and anger, step back to think about what you should do. If it happened once, it’ll happen again. So, the question is: What do you do if someone is promoting your work as their own, and worse, profiting from it?

If it’s website content, to quickly sum up:

  1. Find the contact information on the website, and request removal of your material.
  2. Try to find information of the website’s owner. Domain information today is often hidden, so you may want to contact the web hosting company directly. You may also consider sending a formal “Cease and Desist” letter informing the hosting company of the situation.
  3. File a notice of DMCA (Digital Millenium Copyright Act) infringement.

A DMCA can be pretty straightforward. (The site is: The landing page has a “Start Takedown” link that takes you directly to a simple form that you fill out to get the process started. And then there’s the money part to pay for the service, if that’s the route you want to go. However, the DMCA site has a wealth of information to learn from. Chances are, if you’re a writer, you should have a basic idea on how to initiate the take down yourself and the implications involved. (Sometimes it has backfired on original creators, but that’s another story.)

To sum up, there’s always been theft: the victims versus the predators. It just so happens that the Internet is still young and is constantly evolving. It’s a wonderful convenience for most of us; yet, others use it as a way to exploit others. So, learn what you can do minimize content theft, and be prepared for what happens. As a writer, it’s bound to happen to you sooner or later.

And to those harboring thoughts of taking from others: Don’t be a loser. Don’t plagiarize.

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