Finding long term solutions to digital plagiarism

by Jason Preston on August 18, 2008

Between Jody Rosen’s understandably angry piece in Slate, Dude, you stole my article, the blatant copyright violation at Mygazines, and Tammi Marcoullier’s musings about link journalism as a solution on Publish2, I think it’s safe to say that digital plagiarism is on people’s minds.

In a medium where “copy & paste” is a matter of keystrokes, and RSS allows easy reproduction of whole, original content, it’s hardly a surprise that digital plagiarism happens all the time.

Like policing commenters, fighting digitial plagiarists can seem like an uphill battle. Which means it’s time to do what needs to be done in these situations: change the rules.

Copying made easy

The difference between making digital copies of something and making physical copies of something is like the difference between riding a tricycle and driving a forklift.

Making digital copies is so damn easy it’s almost a joke. Even better, once something is in a digital format, if it can be read (or heard, or seen), it can be copied. DRM does not stop people from taking a picture of it or recording it with a microphone.

Trying to enforce copyright through the standard method—by taking something that is hard to do (copying) and making it dangerous (illegal)—is not going to work very well when copying is no longer hard to do.

So far, a lot of companies have been trying to take away the very thing that makes digital so cool: the ability to make copies easily. This is never going to work, because they’re trying to poison the lake.

If you can’t beat ’em, join ’em

Embrace the internet.

Digital formats make it so easy for your content to be everywhere, which is the absolute best place your content can be.

Let’s back up and look at the original problem. Copyright infringement (digital plagiarism) is bad because when other people take your work and use it to earn money, they are essentially stealing money from you.

There are two ways to solve this problem:

  1. Make it hard for other people to make copies of your work.
  2. Allow other people to make copies of your work, but make sure you get paid for it.

That does not mean licensing fees. As the AP inadvertently proved, this is a terrible idea.

Rather, the solution is to use rich media formats and ad network cooperation to make sure that advertising revenue always kicks back to the original content creator.

Technology solutions

When Revver serves a video, it shows a couple of ads against it and shares the revenue with the video’s creator. This happens regardless of where the video is played because it comes as a package—when you snag the video embed code, the ad stays with the content.

As things stand, of course, the technology doesn’t provide a way to do this with anything other than video.

Text, in particular, seems to be in big trouble.

There are a couple of possible solutions I can imagine:

Ad networks like Google’s AdSense could kickback to original content producers when it recognizes original content on other ad sites, leaving a giant, gaping question: how do you register your content? and should Google really be the entity that determines copyright online?

RSS technologies should grow to include rich formatting (it already does, sorta), allowing content producers to embed formatted ads with their text, allowing them to monetize their content when splogs re-post feeds.

And there are probably a few more that I can’t. The point is that it’s a lot easier to get your hang glider ready than it is to try paddling upriver away from the waterfall.

For more discussion about the business model of online publishing, come to The Pitch in September, a free Eat Sleep Publish event.

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David Carr on the AP announcement — Eat Sleep Publish
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1 Tim Burden 08.18.08 at 1:36 pm

Hi Jason,

I totally agree that this is an important problem. Link journalism is definitely part of the solution, but I also think that Google (et al) and especially Google News has to do a much better job of punishing duplication. But as you say, how does Google determine who was first? It can’t just go by when it’s spiders happened to crawl by. Perhaps a pinging mechanism of some kind would work well.

On splogs, unfortunately, I think they could easily be rigged to strip out your ad and even replace it with their own.


2 Jason Preston 08.18.08 at 2:06 pm

@Tim – right on two counts:

1. I’ve thought about how content registration would work, but there are a myriad of philosophical problems that arise when you let Google, or any other company, become the arbiter of online copyright.

A pinging method would work well except for the vast amounts of printed content that’s not online already. If I retype a section from a book and register it with the ad network online before the book author does, then I get paid for their work? Verification is tricky and goes beyond simply “who typed it first.”

re: Splogs – you’re right that formatting can be stripped from feeds, and it would be if it kept the splogs from making money themselves. I guess the trick is to let the splogs serve their CPC ads while you collect the CPM for your content.

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