Sunday, 29 June 2008

Message-Board Plagiarism (Part I)

I expect writers to have at least a basic understanding of the rules of plagiarism, and to respect the work of other writers, but it seems that I expect too much. This week I’ve read more than twenty cases of message-board plagiarism. And every case appeared on writers’ message boards.

In some of the posts a small introduction to the original piece was provided, and a brief mention was made of where the article originally came from: something like, “source: guardian”, or “this came from the BBC website”. Sometimes (although not always) a link was provided to the original piece. Then the article was quoted—usually in its entirety.

Such use is in clear breach of the Copyright Act, and exceeds the guidelines to fair dealing which have been established by the Society of Authors and the Publishers’ Association (you can find a summary of that information here, and read my piece about it here).

The BBC’s terms of use are pretty standard. They state,

“You may not copy, reproduce, republish, disassemble, decompile, reverse engineer, download, post, broadcast, transmit, make available to the public, or otherwise use content in any way except for your own personal, non-commercial use.”
Some of the writers who posted the work considered what they had done to be “personal use”, and therefore allowable. This is not the case: allowing work to be put to personal use does not allow cut-and-paste copying onto websites, message-boards, or anywhere else that it can be read by anyone who happens along.

A couple of people insisted that as no money was made by the writer who copied the work, the use was “non-commercial” and therefore allowable. This is argument is clearly fallacious: the “personal use” condition has already been breached, and fulfilling the conditions of one condition will not overrule breaching another.

My very favourite piece of abstract reasoning, though, was this:

“The BBC have admitted to me (in relation to something else) that they have no control over what people do with [the work] once it is posted up on their site.”
While the BBC might have admitted that it can't control all use of its work, that’s a pretty poor excuse to make. You might just as well say that it's fine to steal little things from shops because the Police have admitted that they can't control all petty crime.


Anonymous said...

I didn't realise you couldn't quote something on a message board, HowP. That seems a bit extreme. Isn't it OK if you acknowledge the source? I'm sure they do that in newspapers, etc.
Or am I missing something here?


Anonymous said...

I'm pretty sure it's not wrong to quote something on a message board or on the net as long as you want to give something you've seen on the net a wider audience. If it is, then I stand corrected but it would be breach of copyright and not plagiarism unless you claimed something was your own thoughts and words.

I once wrote to a well-known journalist for permission to quote from an article of his in a piece I was writing for an online newsletter devoted to the Historical Novel part of an article he wrote that. His article had been published originally in The Times. He was very kind and said he was very happy for me to do so but that I'd better check with The Times as well.

This I did, only to be told that if I proceeded they would sue me. It scared the hell out of me so I ditched the plan.

That was a few years ago. Things may have changed since then as the Internet has proliferated because I'm not sure it can be policed but threats to sue always seem like a desperate act, to me. I wonder what would have happened had I ignored them?

Anonymous said...

Sorry. I left a garbled half-sentence in there I should have deleted. in there. It should read '. . . devoted to the Historical Novel. His article has been published . . .'

Jane Smith said...

Whether the issue here is plagiarism or copyright infringement depends on how the copied work is presented.

Anonymous, quoting on a message board is fine, so long as you credit the original piece appropriately, your quote falls within the guidelines of fair dealing (also referred to as fair use), and your quote is used in the context of "criticism or review". The Society of Authors has issued guidelines on how much you're allowed to quote without permission, and it's pretty reasonable: about 400 words a time, I think, but do check that. And you do have to attribute it correctly: just mentioning that the quote came from the Times wouldn't be good enough, you'd have to say that it was printed in the Times, and written by Mr Times Writer. It's good manners to provide the date of publication if possible, and a link to the piece.

However, when whole articles are copied, then there's an issue. Or when whole message board posts consist of material which has been copied elsewhere. Even if the original source has been acknowledged.

When that happens, it's possible for websites to be closed down by their site hosts. I've seen it happen. I know people who have caused it to happen when their work was copied without their permission.

The big point here is one of respect. If writers don't understand how important it is that writers' work is properly attributed and acknowledged, then who else is going to?

Jane Smith said...

Sally, so long as you quoted within reason I doubt that the Times could have sued you--but do remember, I am not a lawyer nor do I play one on TV.

If the orignal writer gave you permission to use his words, and the Times only bought single-use rights or FBSR from him, then the Times wouldn't have had any legs to stand on, as far as I understand this issue. Although that wouldn't stop them blustering.

Annie Wicking said...

Hi Jane,
Thank you for dropping by my blog and leaving a comment. I've now added you to my links.

Best wishes,

Brenda Gunning said...

This is an interesting take on copyright and I am sure that your points will certainly affect many people.
I wonder if as you say, that quoting from pieces or copying whole articles onto message boards really is plagiarism, though. If there is an introductory few lines and then the source is stated, then regardless of the length, the piece is a quote and plagiarism only comes into effect when the poster is claiming the words to be their own or, again as you say, for personal gain.
Bringing a quotation or article to a message board as an opening for discussion, or to highlight a point already in a discussion is hardly for "personal gain". I suggest that a little understanding of what is the intention of the writer/poster is the relevant factor here.
Are there any message boards in particular that you are concerned about ? (I tried to post this morning but couldn't for some reason)

Jane Smith said...

Lexia, thanks for that. You're right: making a reasonable quote, which you put into context, isn't a problem--indeed, it's the basis of a lot of academic argument and critical study.

However, when a post consists purely of someone else's work, there's obviously a problem.

If only people would do as you suggest. Something like, "Here's an interesting article I read", then a brief summary of the article and why the poster considers it interesting is all that's needed. Then perhaps a quote of the first couple of lines, and a link to view the rest of the work on its original website.

I don't have any particular websites in mind here: I've seen this on just about every writing site that I've visited this week. Different places react in different ways: on Absolute Write, the moderators insisted that the original poster shorten the quote, and attribute it correctly; on another site I saw perhaps 30 or more copy-and-paste posts which barely credited the original author, and had been posted by the site's administrators. Not good.

(Sorry you couldn't comment this morning, by the way: I've not heard of any problems with this site, so can only assume the wind was blowing in the wrong direction at the time. Glad you're here now.)

Jane Smith said...

Apologies for the comment-spam which appeared here just now: I've deleted it, and have switched on the comment moderation feature in an attempt to stop it happening again.