As someone that takes pride in their web and marketing content development, one of the most aggravating things that you may (will) encounter is plagiarism. Unfortunately it is a fact of life, especially with information and content so prime for the picking on the web.
After recently dealing with a company that literally completely replicated my corporate website, with the only changes being a “find-replace” of the company name and the overall layout, I decided I would put a quick tips/rant blog post here about it.
Why Website and Marketing Plagiarism Matters
From the Victim’s Standpoint
- Most of the corporate web has been developed by hard working individuals and companies that have spent countless hours and money to develop marketing messages and original creative content. Any time you see your content, thoughts or ideas stolen and labeled as someone else’s it strikes a blow to morale and stifles future create thoughts and concepts.
- Your image or your company’s brand is hurt. Your product/service no longer is unique, and you could potentially lose business directly to a competitor that will make profit off of your hard work.
- Search Engines (Yahoo, Google, MSN) penalize YOUR SITE when they find other sites that have duplicate or similar content. This means, that your hard work and financial investment in getting top-ranked search results could all go away. Search engines are not yet sophisticated enough to determine who the content actually belongs to, or who had it first.
From the theif’s standpoint or a company that hired a thief
- Ethics - The most intangible but important thing to remember is stealing copryighted work unethical. Not only is it unethical, it is illegal, someone that duplicates content from another site is a thief. They will cause the victim to reevaluate their commitments to delivering new and create content and will overall stifle the progress of electronic message delivery.
- Money – Copyright infringement can cause you monetary damages. First off, in extreme cases, you can get sued for stealing content. Their have been many lawsuits that have been successful in prosecuting copyright infringement. On an equally important note, there are ways for victims to actually obtain your domain name/website legally, by filing with ICANN if you infrindged on their brand name or trademark. In most cases however, your site will simply be removed from search engines and hosting companies, meaning you spent money for a product/service that you can no longer market.
- Lost Time – Even if you did not spend much time on the creation of your own website or content, you did dedicate at least a little time. Although cutting and pasting content is quick and easy, if a victim finds that content and has your content removed, you wasted all of your time and effort.
- Lost Image – Leading companies actively search for copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. Even if you are compliant with their requests (and you were unaware that your outsourced provider stole the content) your company's brand and corporate image is still tarnished.
Hiring an Outsourced Web Development Company
First off, be very careful of offshore web development companies (particularly in Asia). Not that all of them are bad, but 9 out of the last 10 sites that I found that have plagiarized my content were either hosted in India/China or were “developed” by “companies” in those countries. Sure, you may save a few bucks, but when someone like me comes after you for theft of content, you will spend much more money recreating your site and redeveloping your content and could potentially lose your site altogether.
Secondly, when engaging a prospective web development company, treat it as any other supplier that you would hire. First, run a background check, how long have they been in business, what are their revenues, who are their customers, and the big red-flag, how many company names do they operate under. This may take some creative web searching, like finding their address or phone number and then searching the web for that same address and/or phone number. When a company has 2, 3, or 4 names that it operates under, and/or their email addresses are free services such as yahoo or hotmail, you should almost definitely look somewhere else. If a company cannot afford its own domain and email address, or has too many to count, something is wrong.
Third, review their work….carefully. Ask for examples of other live websites that they have done, not examples that they email you as a document, image or pdf. Then contact those companies, find out if they really did do the work for them. It is very easy for a company to take credit for a website that they did not even create, so reach out to their customers and do a reference check. Use search engines to copy random sentences from their example sites and see what other similar hits are out there. Also, use the tools I detail next…
One of my favorite tools, that is free to use, is http://www.copyscape.com/. CopyScape allows you to enter a full url to any page on the web and it will return other pages that it feels are duplicated content. When a prospective web developer gives you examples of their work, go to those sites, copy urls to various sub-pages and run them through CopyScape. Keep in mind that CopyScape only returns results for the single page that you queried, not the entire site, so you will want to manually test multiple pages for each site. If CopyScape is returning results of other sites with identical content, you must research it in much greater detail. Just having duplicate content by itself does not necessarily mean that the developer stole the work, they might have been a victim of plagiarism themselves. So use Whois searches and the Internet Archive to find out who had the content first.
Lastly, be realistic. If you engage a web development company (or any marketing company) to create original pieces of content and work for you and the price is too cheap, or the quality is over-the-top, dig in a little deeper.
Let’s be real, most of us are barely able to pitch a high-level message about our organizations in a one-hour sales call. But, the web developer has a few emails back and forth with you and a one-hour call and a few days later they produce a 10-15 page website that has your message clearly communicated in detail that you did not provide them. Something is wrong, and the content is almost definitely stolen. Take the draft site that they produced for you and run it through the tools mentioned above to see if it is original work or stolen from your competitors.
As a plug to my company, Source One, hiring a good Procurement Services Provider can help you navigate all of the above points and tips in hiring a web development or marketing firm.
Finding Website Plagiarism:
- One of the best tools that I have found for identifying website plagiarism is http://www.copyscape.com/. I detailed the tool a bit above (under Hiring and Outsourced Web Development Company. But simply put, the tool allows you to quickly identify (on a page-by-page basis) duplicate content on the web. Cut and past individual page urls from your site into the tool and it will return other sites that it believes are serving duplicate or similar content.
- Do search engine searches. Good old fashioned Google and Yahoo searches work best. Copy entire random sentences from your website and paste them into the search engine. See what comes back and go look at it.
Responding to Website Plagiarism:
- Know your rights: Read the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA)
- Learn about the Internet Corporation for Assigning Names and Numbers (ICANN), in extreme cases, ICANN can help you revoke a website that infringes on your brand name or trademarks. These guys literally run the web. They control and have ultimate authority on domain names and public ip addresses.
- File DMCA Complaints Immediately. Do this before you take any other steps. As soon as you find duplicate content or stolen content from your site, immediately file complaints with the leading search engines. Although the search engine companies may take a long time to respond (if at all) they have the ability to remove the offending sites from their search engine results. (Google DMCA Complaint, Example DMCA Complaint Letter, List of Multiple DMCA Complaint Addresses)
- Go after the hosting company (the provider that actually hosts the website). Use a Whois tool to identify where the website is hosted and contact the host (typically an firstname.lastname@example.org email address). Typically, most companies use a third-party to host their website rather than hosting it themselves. Hosting companies are usually the quickest to respond to complaints because they do not want to be responsible for monetary damages in a lawsuit.
- Lastly, contact the company itself. I say do this last, because in many cases they already know they stole the content, and in many cases they will not respond anyhow.
Prevention of Website Plagiarism
Unfortunately, we will never be able to completely stop website and marketing plagiarism. However, you can at least clearly notify people visiting your site that it will not be tolerated. CopyScape recommends the four steps below to help prevent theft of your content:
- Put a Plagiarism warning banner on every page on your website
- Include Copyright Notices on every page of your site (©)
- Use a service such as Copysentry to detect plagiarism as it is happening (this isn’t really prevention, but at least allows you to react quickly)
- Address plagiarism immediately. Unethical developers that are stealing your content are unlikely to steal it again if everything they copy gets shut down right away. If they get away with it once, they will do it again and again.