Catching copiers of copy

Posted on July 10, 2012

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Plagiarists, copiers, frauds, cheats – call them what you will. Some people think anything online is fair game to be ‘liberated’, sans even a hat-tip to the source. You won’t find many content professionals (media, marketing, other) who truly believe that. Though some still do it.

So how do you protect your words (to put it humbly), your intellectual property (to be slightly more pompous)?

A few years ago, when I was an editor in tech media, we had this problem. A writer for a rival publication had on several occasions ripped off our chief reporter’s scoops. We were sick of it.

We all knew about spats between rival publications elsewhere, for example in the celebrity press. One would rip-off another and when questioned about it – occasionally even by readers – claim they had sourced the same information independently themselves. Had they fuck.

So here’s what we did. The story coming up was based around a tribunal featuring a former salesperson at a large software company. We knew – close to 100% – that there were no other representatives from the media in the public gallery on the day. So the plan involved using information only we were privy to.

One detail of the case was the disgruntled employee’s base salary. I considered it a small thing in the big scheme of things – from memory something like £65,000 out of a total remuneration several multiples of that – so we tweaked that. It became £67,000 in the final copy.

Sure enough, our rival’s report contained the line about “a £67K salary”.

A few hours later and it turned out to be quite a conversation, from me to the rival writer’s editor. To be fair, they fessed up quite early. The whole process is one of the least favourite things editors have to do (on either side of the equation) and in my experience those in the wrong are contrite more often than not.

Two final points.

Is it wrong, perhaps short-changing readers, to change a fact? (Some editors use this technique with a quotation or misspelling, as an alternative, but you could make the same argument.) I don’t think so. I think the end justifies the means and – importantly – we played with a fact that didn’t materially affect the story. Even if someone were to round the number, both times they’d probably get to the same end point. (Either £65K or £70K.)

(This was the subject of a recent controversial post involving tech bloggers.)

Last, what happened to the serial copier? (I hear you ask.) I’d seen situations where writers doing this had been fired. In our case, the writer did move on – to a more prestigious position at another publication.

Where’s the justice, eh?

Image Duplicate Original by woodleywonderworks used under Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic (CC by 2.5).

Follow Tony on Twitter – @tphallett

Need to know about events? Buy the e-book, Everything In Moderation: How to chair, moderate and otherwise lead events, by Collective Content (UK) founder Tony Hallett from Amazon.co.uk.

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Posted in: Media, Work