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When You Copy, You Kill Your Credibility (and a Kitten)

In the last few weeks, copying has come up over and over again for me. At Viget, I’ve found myself doing DMCA research for a new product in recent days (more on that soon, I hope). A couple weeks ago, I found myself having a discussion with a colleague from the DC community about the fact that he directly pasted a passage from elsewhere into his blog post without a citation, and was defending his actions. Finally, last month, Ali had her site ripped off by a couple of different sites, both of which were the paid gigs of other designers.

Whether you’re a designer, a writer, or a designer doing some writing on a personal blog, it’s in your own best interests not to copy. That said, if you do, it’s in your best interests to make it right, too.

Copying Words

Let’s make this simple: if you pull more than a couple words from another site without rewording it, rethinking it, or reinterpreting it, and you intend for someone other than yourself or a member of your family to read it, you need to toss it in quotes (or a blockquote, if it’s a longer snip) and cite the source. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. Other peoples’ words don’t sound like your words, and your voice is lost in your writing. The moment your voice is lost, the reader begins to zone out and stops paying attention to the words you’re saying. Reading disjointed phrases or sentences tends to feel irrelevant, and you look to skip it for the next relevant part.
  2. It devalues your site. If your content is just repackaged content from other sources, the original source might be more appealing to your readers.
  3. It’s unethical: you’re taking credit for the work of others. By virtue of the fact that you’ve put the logo, the copyright statement, or even your name on the article (or the site that holds the article), you’re saying the content is your work.
  4. It could be illegal. If the content is copyrighted, you could be violating that by using the text, and that means that your site is one email from the owner away from being taken down by your ISP under the DMCA.
  5. You lose your argument if someone else copies your text.

Copying Images & Designs

This can be a little cloudier, and doesn’t quite have the rule that text does. With cheap royalty-free stock material readily available, it makes sense for designers to start from the work of others rather than reinventing the wheel each time. However, it seems safe to say that if you’re downloading an image from or taking a screenshot of someone else’s work without paying or permission, no matter how much you post-process it afterward, you’re ethically in the wrong.

If ethics aren’t enough for you, here are some practical reasons not to do it:

  1. One man’s solution is another’s problem. When the original designer did what she or he did, it was to address a particular set of circumstances. You probably don’t have all those same circumstances, so the site won’t feel like you, no matter how great pieces of it may look.
  2. If you’re a designer, it’ll look really bad. If you’re copying design elements without permission or without giving credit, it just looks like you don’t know how to design properly. Why would anyone hire you when you can’t even manage to execute the basic skills of design, which involves the proper treatment of inspiration and found assets.

Making it Right

The real reason I wanted to write this post has to do with what happens when you’re caught. A designer comes to you and says “you copied by work without permission: quit it,” or someone calls you out for copying text directly from another resource without citing it. What do you do?

Make it right. That doesn’t mean doing what’s required by law to get you in the clear. That means changing your work to satisfy the emotions of the person whose work you copied, and that can mean a lot more than what’s required by law.

  • Example: One friend was told by a visitor that her website’s background had been copied and used on another site, which turned out to have been done for a client, for pay, by a designer whose work has appeared on galleries. When approached, he claimed he’d found the background on a texture site, though he was never able to produce the site in question. In the end, he replaced the background in question a nearly identical (but presumably self-created) texture, which he considered good enough. Legally, he may have been in the clear (especially since he was Czech, and not in the US), but this friend still felt ripped off and unsatisfied, and there’s no way that either of us would ever say good thing about the designer in question.

  • Example: A colleague of mine posted an article that had a series of flawed arguments along with a blatantly-ripped paragraph from Wikipedia without a citation. The article didn’t flow as a result of the plagiarism, and when he was called out for the copying, he responded by claiming that journalistic standards don’t apply to him, that he wasn’t concentrating on the quality of his content, and retorts like “it’s just a blog,” each of which made him look amateur (which he certainly isn’t). Instead, he could have solved the problem with a quick “good point, my bad,” a blockquote element, and a quick link to the article.

  • Example: A visitor informed Ali of a site that copied multiple elements of her website. The site was produced by an agency for a singer-songwriter, and used a couple of Ali’s backgrounds and visual elements (like clouds) pretty directly. We wrote to the agency and the client, and the agency responded back by saying “we’ve taken our name off it, and told the designer to rework things,” which sounded like a fair response and we dropped it. When we saw the result, though, little was changed. The clouds were simply redrawn, the backgrounds were remade a la Example #1, and the agency name is back in the footer. Legally, it was in the clear, but Ali didn’t exactly feel satisfied.

If you don’t make it right to the standards of the content owner or the person who cited the infraction, whatever they may be, the effects of your copying persist in the minds of those who know the story. Web design is a small community, when you get down to it, and this stuff gets around and can really affect your perception by others who have heard the story.

However, if you do make it right, you may actually come off in a very positive light, despite the fact that you copied in the first place. You look like you own up to errors, recognize the importance of the issue, and have personal integrity. That positive vibe can be very powerful, as long as it doesn’t happen again.

Copying Isn’t Just a Legal Issue

If you think that being legally in the clear means you’re immune from criticism, you’re wrong. Ethical requirements extend significantly beyond legal requirements. It’s not about being a journalist or an academic, it’s about being a publisher. As soon as you put your name on a piece of any sort and present it to the public, you’re making the claim that it’s your work; when you break that promise, don’t expect anything other than a poor reflection on you and the work you do.

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Avatar of M. Jackson Wilkinson

I'm M. Jackson Wilkinson, a technologist, designer, speaker, educator, and writer in San Francisco. I'm the Founder of Kinsights. I'm from Philadelphia, went to Bowdoin College in Maine, root for the Phillies, and love to sing.

Entry posted from Pearson Square Apartment

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  1. This is a very attractive site, Jackson. I especially like the heading font you're using - a great overall presentation. And kudos for getting it up just in time for the new administration!

  2. Thanks Paul, much appreciated :)

  3. Great site and good article.

    I was going to ask why you didn't have an example of someone actually making it right, then it occured to me: People who plagarize in the first place, really don't care that much. If they did, they would have taken the time to do it properly in the first place.

  4. Good article Jackson, it reminded me of a case of plagiarism that came to light in England recently.

    Raj Persaud a TV psychiatrist was found guilty of “bringing the profession into disrepute” -

    Seems like he was in the habit of plagiarising and he made the mistake of using using some plagiarised text in an article about Scientology. The Scientologists are a group that are very aware of their image and will vigorously defend any attack on their beliefs, when they noticed the plagiarism they reported him to the Medical Council.

    As a designer and photographer I've also had my work copied on a few occasions, on one occasion it was by a fellow student while in my final year of study.

  5. Your blog bring to mind an interesting point… So often we fail to see the relevancy of what we do in school as children, but I guess all those tedious footnotes were for a reason. Citation, citation citation… drilled in year after year, and now we see that the real life application is far more pertinent than merely giving credit to a dusty encyclopedia somewhere. Original source referencing teaches us integrity and also the importance of finding that same mutual honesty in our dealings with others. Who says schools don't teach ethics?

  6. @Dave: Yeah, I think that folks perceive plagiarism to be an issue only in academic circles, and so Mr. Persaud probably thought it didn't matter once he wasn't “publishing papers” in “peer reviewed journals.” We all write in peer reviewed journals to one extent or another as soon as we turn comments on.

    @Nancy/mom: Agreed. I think that the fact that everyone has to learn how to do it in school is part of what makes it inexcusable that adults would fail to make tacet citations. Compared with having to cite MLA or Chicago-style, citing on the web should be a breeze.

  7. What do I like? What should I play? In looking for free online car games, these are the questions which constantly appear in your mind, right? These are basic questions and will, for sure, occur anytime when presented with favorable options. All car games online, be it free or not are cool. And for car enthusiasts or known to be game lovers, the thrill these games bring are worthy - big time. The things is, not all purchasable car race games, car parking games and car driving games are reasonable to be purchased.

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