Saturday, November 6, 2010

Plagiarism - It could happen to you

This week there were two cases of egregious internet plagiarism that were getting a lot of attention. In both cases, the two offenders claimed they didn't know that they were doing anything wrong. Incredulously, one was a magazine editor and the other was a university professor. You would think they would be the last professionals caught plagiarizing.

Very Messy Apple Pie

The first story involved a blogger/web writer who wrote a blog post about medieval apple pies complete with recipes and a bibliography. The editor of Cooks Source Magazine used the article without permission and reprinted the article in both Cooks Source online and in the printed version.

The author of the original internet article took to the internet to protest when she discovered the theft. Later, NPR wrote a story about the resulting internet outing phenomenon.

In this particular case, the editor of the magazine [erroneously] stated that everything on the internet is in the public domain.

Discontented Spirits

In the second case, Mindie Burgoyne on the Who Cares What I Think? blog wrote the history of how one of her blog posts was stolen and used by a Colorado university professor without permission or proper attribution. This particular blog was on the rather unusual topic of "thin places" which according to Mindie is "a place where connection to that [spiritual] world seems effortless, and ephemeral signs of its existence are almost palpable."  Definitely, a unique topic that is easily identified.

This article is particularly interesting because it details how Mindie confronted and dealt with the theft and the how the professor responded.  Most of this article revolves around lack of permission but more importantly lack of proper citation and attribution.

Genealogists on the web

Genealogical writers also need to be concerned about copyright, whether they write for print publications or the web. Writers need to be diligent that their work is appropriately credited and attributed.

The main copyright reference  for genealogists so far has been Carmack's Guide to Copyright & Contracts by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.   This is a short, easy-to-read book that is a must read for any genealogical writer.

There is also a chapter by Val D. Greenwood, J.D. called "Copyright and Fair Use" in the book Professional Genealogy, edited by Elizabeth Shown Mills.

While both of these works are excellent and will get you on the right path, the waters have gotten much murkier for those publishing on the internet.

Addressing today's online issues

The realm of publishing on the internet is confusing to say the least.  Protecting your work when it can be easily copied and pasted is much more difficult.  And there are two battlefronts here: 1) outright theft like the two examples above and 2) stealing of content by splogs that do attribute and provide links back to original sources but do so without permission on sites that earn revenue from advertising.

Thomas MacEntee of GeneaBloggers has been at the forefront of leading the charge against sploggers and internet plagiarists for genealogists.  He calls out the theft of content against genealogical bloggers and assists with getting the stolen content removed from the offending sites. He has used "Content Theft" and "Copyright" tags to make it easy to locate his posts on those topics.

Where do we go from here?

Thomas has made a great start but it is not enough and he can not do it alone.  I believe it is time for a new publication to help genealogical writer's address the questions they have about online copyright and plagiarism.  We need to understand how to protect our work online and how to handle it when theft occurs.

I hope that a member of the genealogical community will produce a publication such as this.  Preferably it would be written by a copyright lawyer or a genealogist working in conjunction with a copyright lawyer.

What do you think?  Has the online copyright issue impacted you?  Do you want to know more about this topic so that you can protect your work?


  1. I have had personal narratives stolen - which is infuriating. While I throughly enjoy sharing my genealogy work, copying and pasting entire paragraphs, as if the other person is doing the work, is another kettle of fish.

  2. I put a lot of my genealogy information on the internet. I believe that it is meant to be shared. I don't mind when people attach my stories and photos to their trees on This week a blogger nicked one of my gravestone photographs to use in her blog, and it was used without attribution. I contacted the author who has now given attribution for the photo. Many years ago, I had a boss who took publications that I had written and edited and put them in his portfolio when he applied for a job. I couldn't believe that he even had the nerve to show me. His justification was he could do that because he was my boss when I did the work. That was probably the most egregious theft of my work that I've experienced. This is a great post, I was pretty shocked when I read the NPR article yesterday. Thanks for bringing this to people's attention. This comment is copyright 2010 Susan P. ;-) That is definitely said with a wink!

  3. Thanks Marian - and I agree with you that an updated publication on copyright and genealogy is needed. Still today I am getting comments from people who don't understand all the fuss and that everything on the Internet is free for the taking.

  4. I agree with Thomas. A distinction also needs to be made between using information you discover online to further your own research as compared to taking information and republishing it - with or without attribution.

  5. Susan - I think there is nothing wrong with sharing or wanting to share your genealogical information, as you mention. I think it is all about the intent. Authors need to post on their blogs when the material is free for the taking (with attribution) or copy written. The problem with copyright and plagiarism is that the topic is so complex that people get easily confused.

  6. I posted a bit of information gleaned from a cousin on my blog, only to have someone contact me a year later to complain that I took it from their website! We have to remember that this issue goes both ways. As bloggers, don't forget to find out the source of information people share and what you post or re-post. I updated my post, cited the sources and the original website, and wrote a lengthy appology to the author. He was correct to be upset. Phew!... This is true confessions time!

  7. Heather - very good point! I hadn't considered that. A good reminder that we need to know for sure where the information we are posting comes from. Thanks Heather!

  8. Interesting post Marian.

    Sploggers frustrate the heck out of me. I've made my copyright statement pretty restrictive as far as using my material to generate income. I choose not to use ads on my blog, and I don't want someone else making money off of what I write. I don't mind people using the factual information I offer on my blog as long as it is properly atributed. I also think I have a pretty distinct style of writing. I don't want anyone lifting what I see as my creative work. The photos I post are important to my blog and to me personally, and it does concern me that they might end up in the wrong hands. I don't want to attribute this incorrectly, but I think Kerry Scott at Clue Waggon recently asked, are we feeding our ancestors to the Internet? I've wondered the same thing myself.

    Thanks for the thought provoking post.

  9. Oops, gosh darn it. I meant Kerry Scott at Clue Wagon. Please excuse my spelling error. Zeesh...

  10. Here's a followup article by CNN on the theft by Cooks Source:

  11. I've had photos and content stolen without attribution. I think a document on copyright and plagiarism is a good idea.