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Do's and Don'ts of Content Theft

  |  May 25, 2012   |  Comments

A cautionary tale for publishers, content marketers, and others under pressure to produce content.

Veteran newsman Arnaud de Borchgrave, who writes commentary for United Press International and The Washington Times, has been accused of improperly taking content from ClickZ and The Associated Press. While he has impressive journalistic credentials, including covering 18 wars, de Borchgrave now finds himself dodging digital landmines.

To "borrow" a comment from bethindc1 on washingtonpost.com: "Oh man....I know deadlines can be menacing, some articles are just a drag to write and writers block hits us all at one time or another but come on, that was lazy and stupid." Or as I told The Washington Post: "It sucks."

De Borchgrave could have easily avoided these accusations of plagiarism. His dilemma serves as a cautionary tale for publishers, content marketers, and others under pressure to produce content.

First, the back story. Washington Post blogger Erik Wemple identified three instances where de Borchgrave "borrowed" content from other sources, but did not provide attribution in two of those instances.

Take the case involving ClickZ that Wemple illustrated:

On Jan. 3, 2012, United Press International published a column, "Youth Bulge" by de Borchgrave that contained the following passage:

Facebook is the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. It reaches 55 percent of the world's global audience, accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites. That's one in every seven minutes spent online all over the world (comScore's 10/11 data indicate).

On Dec. 27, 2011, ClickZ.com ran a column, "10 Social Media 2011 Highlights (Data Included)" by Heidi Cohen. It included the following passage:

Facebook remains the global 900-pound gorilla of social media networks. Facebook reached 55 percent of the world's global audience accounting for roughly 75 percent of time spent on social networking sites and one in every seven minutes spent online globally according to comScore's October 2011 data. It's important to note Facebook is blocked in China.

De Borchgrave told The Washington Post that he had "picked this up" at a social media conference but did not disclose which one. (The Washington Times said de Borchgrave will take a three-month leave; the newspaper will conduct a review of his columns.)

Cohen, a ClickZ columnist since 2004, challenged de Borchgrave's assertion. "There are not any conferences that time of year. No one is back from vacation. And if it was at a show, why didn't he name it?" she asked. (Because Cohen has worked as a university professor, she has zero tolerance for plagiarism.)

While de Borchgrave did not commit a major crime, he apparently infringed on copyrighted work.

Compounding the challenge for marketers and content creators today: businesses must balance the need to protect their copyrighted works while facilitating social sharing of music, images, and other content.

So what should authors do before they hit the "send" key and deliver their content to an editor or publisher?

Do: Track down factoids to the original source and credit them.

Do: Add a link to the original source. Publishers crave links back to their site because it is a factor in ranking by search engines.

Don't: Assume that images and charts you find in search results are OK to publish. Instead, try to find the original content creator and obtain their permission. De Borchgrave is not accused of doing this, but it's a faux pas occasionally committed by newbie bloggers/authors.

Do: When in doubt, review basics of copyright and fair use published by Stanford University Libraries, much of it courtesy of Nolo.com and author Richard Stim. Teaching Copyright, a project of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, is another resource for educators and students.

Don't: Using unique phrases from another author can bring you grief. De Borchgrave's sin: borrowing the phrase "900-pound gorilla" from ClickZ. It's a cliché that's not quite right since gorillas are typically 800 pounds. And it should have been avoided by both de Borchgrave and ClickZ alike.

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Anna Maria Virzi

Anna Maria Virzi, ClickZ's executive editor from 2007 until 2012, covered Internet business and technology since 1996. She was on the launch team for Ziff Davis Media's Baseline and also worked at Forbes.com, Web Week, Internet World, and the Connecticut Post.

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