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You Can’t Lock Up Your Words and Ideas to Keep Safe on Net

Government ‘minister without portfolio’ Grant Shapps is under fire from the opposition benches over possibly flouting Commons rules about business declarations.

Shapps’ wife runs a company called HowtoCorp, which Shapps and his wife, Belinda, co-founded. Shapps sold his share to his wife in 2008. He does not list the connection in his entry in the Register of Members’ Interests, and Labour allege he broke the ministerial code on transparency by using a pseudonym to work for the company.

The Real Story

Behind all that brouhaha is a revealing tale about how Google is already taking an interest.
No, not that the internet giants are yet flexing their muscles to have a presence in Westminster, but that their strict Adsense rules may have been broken.

HowtoCorp market TrafficPaymaster, a system that creates new websites made up of content scraped from other sites. These new sites, containing little or no original material, sign up to Google Adsense and derive income from visitors clicking on ads strategically placed on the stolen pages.

Google prohibits such behaviour through rules against plagiarism: ‘Scraping content and passing it off as one’s own is not only wrong, but it happens to be a serious violation of our policies.’

Widespread Practices

Most sites that publish the work of others employ plagiarism-search/checker software, and some are so finally tuned they will reject an author’s own work if it is repeated in any significant way again. It’s regarded as recycling fraud.

Education in general and exam boards and universities in particular are now very keen to stamp out the theft of other people’s work. Students who quote Oscar Wilde – ‘talent borrows, genius steals’ get short shrift.

So do the more erudite who reference to TS Eliot:

‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, alien in language or diverse in interest’.

And still ripping-off others happens all the time. Borrowing, free and open web sharing are concepts that have become absorbed in the culture in the past 15 years. Even some journalists have been caught doing it recently, recycling quotes/interviews, if not actually just making them up, which is a different crime.

According to the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary, to “plagiarize” means

  • to steal and pass off (the ideas or words of another) as one’s own
  • to use (another’s production) without crediting the source
  • to commit literary theft
  • to present as new and original an idea or product derived from an existing source.

In other words, plagiarism is an act of fraud. It involves both stealing someone else’s work and lying about it afterwards.

But Can You Steal Off the Open Internet?

Quite simply, yes. Rules against plagiarism are supported in the US, for instance, with some rigour. It is ‘any uncredited use (both intentional and unintentional) of somebody else’s words or ideas’. spells out how young people can avoid plagiarism by properly quoting, referencing and acknowledging work and ideas they use for school work.

If you find some of your work has been scraped by somebody who is busy making money out of it, you can serve them a desist notice which would be a first line of defence in any litigation you may wish to pursue. Some organisations provide such notices for their contributors.

But scraping, like phishing and other frauds needs constant vigilance.

It’s also not new, according to Uncyclopedia.

In Tristram Shandy (1767), author Laurence Stern actually condemned plagiarism by resorting to plagiarism! He selected for his ‘mosaic work’, polished and inserted other people’s work so well that many people forgave him, because of his genius.

And Oscar Wilde is reputed to have said, of Robert Louis Stevenson’s work: “Hmm… A story about a murderer with split personalities and narcissistic tendencies… I’ll tweak it a bit by throwing in a painting or something.” He produced The Portrait of Dorian Gray as a result.

Good Poets Borrow, Great Poets Steal, Nancy Prager, What Is Plagiarism?

Further Reading:

Internet Defamation Risks and Online Reputation Preservation

Scams Are Out to Get You, Online and Off

Intellectual Property Rights Are Web’s Grey Area

Image: Nino Barbieri