Blatant or subtle, deliberate or accidental, taking an idea without giving credit can do permanent damage to your credibility. In this blog, we break down what plagiarism is, why it can happen, and how to steer clear of it in your own work.
Lucie SimonovaSep 12, 2022
Plagiarism and copyright infringement are shady practices plaguing content creation. Copycats exploit them; authors and creators fear them. But what do these terms really mean, and what do they look like in practice?
Here, we’ll explain the two terms using reliable sources, so that we’re well-aligned in understanding their full scope. We’ll also share a couple of unfortunate examples, discuss how copied content can harm your company, and explore some smart ways you can prevent rogue posts from slipping onto your website.
Plagiarism and copyright infringement: What are they?
According to the University of Oxford, plagiarism refers to taking someone else’s work or ideas and presenting them as your own. Whether it be text, data, or research, using whatever resources of others without full acknowledgment is all classified as plagiarism.
Plagiarism can take on many different forms. The most obvious one is copying a text word for word or taking someone else’s idea or argument and claiming it as one’s own.
That said, plagiarism doesn’t have to be so blatant. Even paraphrasing—finding synonymous words, altering the word order, or making other slight changes to someone else’s work without mentioning the author—is also covered under the definition.
Some may plagiarize on purpose, others unintentionally if they forget to give credit when it’s due; other times, writers simply lack the knowledge of proper referencing. By accident or not, even the latter cases result in using someone else’s words without attribution and are considered plagiarism.
The difference between plagiarism and copyright infringement
Plagiarism and copyright infringement are related terms and can overlap, but they refer to different situations. While plagiarism refers to unethical behavior, copyright is a legal matter, as authors can register their work to get the legal protection of copyright.
According to the U.S. copyright office, copyright is an intellectual property protecting original and fixed works of authorship.
Once an author creates an original work and fixes it in a tangible form, they become the copyright owner. Fixing an original work can mean writing a book, recording a documentary, or taking a photograph.
In the sphere of digital content, the following examples are also subject to copyright:
- Social media posts
- Computer programs and apps
- Website content, including text, illustrations, and other audiovisual works
The U.S. copyright law provides copyright owners with a set of exclusive rights. These rights include reproducing the work, distributing copies of the work, or displaying and performing the work publicly.
If someone violates these rights and exercises them without permission, we talk about copyright infringement.
In today’s world of sharing and re-sharing, it can be harder to recognize what constitutes “spreading the love” and what constitutes something more serious. Let’s check out a few regrettable examples that have received some media coverage.
A few years ago, Business Insider covered a case where McDonald’s took an idea for their Twitter ad campaign from freelancers Kristina Bakrevsk and David Sikorski. The pair created a series of photographs of a mock engagement shoot, which soon became viral on the internet.
When McDonald’s launched their marketing campaign featuring photos of a mock engagement, they looked very, very similar. The popular fast food chain has since admitted their wrongdoing and apologized.
B2C content isn’t the only place where good ideas get nabbed. Another example of a complete lack of attribution is much more recent, and unfortunately happened in our own industry: digital content management.
In this example, you’ll see that a diagram presenting the interplay between content and design elements was copied word for word, leaving no room to question whether it was plagiarized or not.
Here is the original in an article about modular UX by Michael Andrews, Kontent.ai’s Content Strategy Evangelist, published in October 2021.
Checking out the diagram published in an article on Contentful’s blog in August 2022 (scrubbed from their blog in September), we can see that it is an exact copy of what Michael created.
Apart from a change in color, the diagram was copied and pasted with no credit given to the original author. There’s no reference to the Kontent.ai website from which it was taken, either. No attribution, no backlinks, and no mention that this isn’t an original idea.
What’s inspiration – and what’s not?
While plagiarizing is never acceptable, getting inspired is more than okay, if not inevitable. Creators of every kind get inspired every day. On top of that, it’s often challenging to come up with a completely unique idea or a story that has never been told.
So, what differentiates creative inspiration from plagiarizing? Creative inspiration is using your own words and giving your own take on a concept when bringing it to life.
You can still draw on other people’s ideas, but the key is to produce an original and authentic piece, while always giving credit when it is due.
There’s a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, and many brands still seem to miss the mark completely—whether deliberately, or otherwise.
What do you think of the following example?
According to Business Insider, media personality and beauty mogul Kylie Jenner has landed in hot water multiple times over the years. Her brand, Kylie Cosmetics, has been accused of copying the ideas and concepts of lesser-known designers and beauty influencers and using them in various makeup and clothing line promotions without credit.
Here’s a side-by-side comparison image posted by Vlada Haggerty, a makeup artist whose picture Jenner reproduced and included in her makeup campaign. While Jenner’s brand did create and shoot their own version, the copycat concept feels too much like a duplicate to be considered merely inspired.
How plagiarized content harms your company
It goes without saying that plagiarized, copied, and uncredited content can do a lot of damage to a company’s name. But did you know that it can also hurt a website’s chances of ranking high on Google and other search engines, making it more difficult for potential customers to find you?
Here are two major impacts plagiarized content has:
1. Damaging brand reputation and authority
All published content reflects the company. If customers discover copied content, their confidence in the brand can drastically weaken.
Because of plagiarized content, small businesses and start-ups may harm their chances of growing, while industry leaders may lose their authority and the trust of their clients for years to come.
Copied content puts the company’s online presence at risk, as it is the brand’s responsibility to ensure that only original content makes it to their website and other channels.
Displaying someone else’s work without credit shows a lack of care and attention, leaving the customers questioning the brand’s integrity and wary of their other malpractices.
Additionally, passing off another author’s words or ideas as their own also shows the lack of originality, making readers wonder whether inauthenticity runs even deeper, to a company’s products or services.
2. Harming SEO
Search engines aim to give visitors high-quality content of value. This is something that copied content can’t classify as. As a result, search engines penalize websites with plagiarized content, which lowers the site’s SERP ranking and significantly harms organic traffic.
According to Semrush, backlinks are still one of the most crucial ranking factors. If users know a company has plagiarized before, they likely won’t want to share content from the company’s website on social media, and other brands won’t want to reference it in their posts.
This significantly decreases the number of backlinks that directly contribute to the website’s authority. A website without authority and backlinks is an easy target for outranking.
If you want to protect your brand’s reputation and nurture your customers’ trust while boosting your SEO, then unique, high-quality, and plagiarism-free content is a must.
What are some reasons plagiarism keeps happening?
1. Outsourcing & guest posts
Hosting guest posts is a common practice for businesses, especially in the B2B space. Purchasing articles from outside contributors is also pretty usual.
However, many of these articles may end up published under someone else’s name, or even anonymously, and may not always be held to the same standards or scrutiny as in-house content, especially when deadlines are tight.
That said, it is always the brand’s responsibility as a publisher to check the given piece for plagiarism; otherwise, their brand reputation may be irreversibly damaged.
2. Lack of content governance
Content governance can help safeguard the brand by providing standards for handling content.
Without proper content governance, rules and regulations for content creation may be unclear or missing, and roles and responsibilities can be confused. As a result, content might go live without the right approvals or final checks.
Content governance is a broad term. The lack of it may be caused by insufficient tooling, missing guidelines outlining specific criteria, or ineffective processes needed to produce quality and error-free content.
To wrap up today’s article, we’re sharing three tips that can help you protect your website from featuring plagiarized content and potentially violating copyright law.
How to protect your site from plagiarized content and copyright infringement
There are several steps you can take to make sure copied content never makes it to your website, including using proper tools, implementing workflows into your strategy, and creating guidelines for giving credit.
1. Use tools to check the originality
To detect copied posts from guest bloggers, you can use one of the plagiarism checkers available. Express Writers shares two examples of intuitive platforms where you can check plagiarized content for free:
Grammarly is a popular tool known for spelling checks and grammar correction to help authors produce mistake-free writing. But did you know you can also use it to perform scans for copied content?
With Grammarly’s Plagiarism Checker, you can detect plagiarism ahead of time while simultaneously checking for any typos and other mistakes.
Copyscape is another great option for checking purchased articles. To keep your brand reputation intact, you can use Copyscape Premium for more advanced searches across the web. Just upload a file or paste text in the search box and start scanning.
2. Implement workflows
Systemized workflows based on your processes can help detect plagiarism on time and make the work of content teams much smoother, especially in larger organizations dealing with heaps of content every day.
It’s not efficient for a single team member to be responsible for supervising all the stages of various content. At the same time, having different team members carrying out similar tasks can lead to clashes and wasted effort. With workflows in a content management system like Kontent.ai, you can breeze through the whole process from drafting to publishing content efficiently and stress-free.
Having different roles on your team responsible for different activities will also make sure everyone knows where to put their focus and use their expertise. With established roles and clear permissions for everyone involved, you can ensure all content gets edited, approved, and published by the right person.
Workflows with defined stages can help you track your content by showing in which stage it currently is and indicating what still needs to be done. Like that, you can avoid unfinished tasks and prevent copied posts from slipping out to your website unnoticed.
3. Have a style guide for attribution
The easiest way to avoid plagiarism in your company is to always attribute any information that doesn’t come straight from your content creators.
To ensure consistency in doing so, it is always helpful to have guidelines for source attribution, as different authors’ ways of giving credit may be confusing to the readers. Guidelines will make it clear what (not) to do and set unified requirements for all the team members to follow.
By providing a source the creators can always come back to when in doubt, you can prevent random or incorrect attribution practices and ensure plagiarism-free content at all times.
Lesson learned: Giving credit where it’s due
Whether on purpose or not, taking someone else’s hard work and presenting it as your own without attribution is never okay. Fortunately, there are ways to make sure plagiarized content never enters your site.
By having proper tools, implementing workflows, and creating attribution style guides for your content teams to follow, you can ensure your brand will be represented by only high-quality, original, and plagiarism-free content.