The Digital Journalist
Plagiarism in the Digital Age
October 2007

by Peter Howe

Now here’s a strange story.

In the first week of September I got an e-mail from a reader who was good enough to inform me that someone was plagiarizing my work on MySpace, and gave me two links, one for the place where the copied work appeared, which my informant claimed was a fake profile, and one for the real profile of the plagiarizer. In order to check this out, however, I had to become a member of the organization whose average age seems to be somewhere between 12 and 14. To do this you must create your own profile. I did briefly consider lying about my age, but at the last moment my integrity overcame my vanity. There is also a place where you can tell all your friends about your new MySpace page, an offer that I could, and did, refuse.

Having gone through this tedious process, and acquiring yet another user ID and password along the way, I finally got to view the alleged plagiarism, and there it was, virtually word for word, one of my columns from The Digital Journalist. Under any circumstances this intellectual property theft would have been bad enough, but the crime was significantly exacerbated by the fact that the column in question was one of the worst and most embarrassing I have ever written for this publication, one in which I actually attempted to defend Judith Miller, ex-correspondent of The New York Times. If anyone else reading this is intending to steal my work, please choose a good piece, one that I will not be ashamed to see reproduced in another location. It's the least you can do.

When I got over the initial shock of this violation, but before the anger subsided, I replied with thanks to my e-mail whistle-blower, and sent a suitably snippy, but I thought restrained message to the plagiarizer, with only understated threats of the physical and legal violence that was likely to befall her as the result of her heinous act. Sending a message to another friend (it seems that there are no enemies on MySpace) is a remarkably lengthy procedure that involves, among other things, copying down a pass code of bizarrely distorted letters that reminded me of the psychedelic days of the Sixties. The recipient was clearly more skilled at MySpace communication than I, because within seconds I had a reply disclaiming any knowledge of the profile in question, and assuring me that it was nothing to do with her. The tone of bewilderment, and the fervency of the denial were such that I went back to the original e-mail. When I re-read it, there was something about it that didn't ring quite true, especially the last line – "Just thought you should know." When somebody uses that phrase it usually means that their intentions are less than benevolent.

Several messages and many distorted letters later, it seems (and I use the word advisedly because I will never know the real truth) that the situation is this. The actual plagiarizer may be my informant, who may have put the page up herself in order to wreak revenge upon the woman she accused, a woman who is now engaged to be married to the accuser's former boyfriend. Now I have often thought that my columns for the DJ might very well get me into hot water someday, but never in my wildest dreams did I think they would ever be used as a weapon in a love triangle.

I have learned two lessons from this unusual experience. The first, and most positive, is that even amongst the 12- to 14-year-old set plagiarism is still considered to be a shameful enough act to be used as a tool in the humiliation of a romantic adversary. Of course she may have been hoping that I would sue her enemy for copyright violation, and be awarded damages that would financially cripple both the rival and ex-boyfriend, now fiancé, for the rest of their lives. If so, my informant was woefully ignorant of the chances of such a lawsuit succeeding.

The other, and more depressing, lesson is that the Internet has rendered the concept of copyright virtually meaningless. Maybe there would be some resonance if the Washington Post or New York Times stole one of my articles, an event so unlikely it is far into the realm of fantasy. But smaller and lower profile publications can do so at will without any fear of effective recrimination. For one thing there are so many of them that effective policing is virtually impossible. I regularly Google myself and key phrases from some of the articles, but rarely, if ever, do I turn up anything, and certainly not the incident being discussed here. Distressing though it may be, we have to learn to live with the fact that copyrighted material is going to be ripped off, and there is no effective way of preventing this from happening. Musicians have accepted this situation for many years, the notable difference being, of course, that a moderately successful musician makes an income many more times per annum than even the most successful photojournalist, let alone someone who writes about photojournalists.

To MySpace's credit, within two days of my complaining about the pilfered material on their site, they removed it. They also thanked me for my "support in helping to keep MySpace a safe and fun community!" There was, however, one after-effect of all this, and that was the fact that it is much easier to join MySpace than to leave it. A request to have the profile removed was countered with a request for a salute! The actual wording of this prerequisite to profile removal was, "In order to verify identity, we require that the party in question sends us a salute. This means we will need an image of them holding a handwritten sign that says '' and if they are a user, their Friend ID." Now I have never been very good at saluting, and as a result of my reluctance to take part in quasi-militaristic activities, if you type in Peter Howe in the Find a Friend section I'm still there. I pop up at number 40, well behind Pothead Pete who is at number four. The only compensation to this continued presence is that this morning I had an e-mail from Gita, who wants to be my friend. If the accompanying photograph is anything to go by friendship with Gita wouldn't be all that bad – a nice platonic friendship of which my wife would thoroughly approve, you understand. On the other hand, maybe Gita was actually looking for Pothead Pete; he looks more her type.

© Peter Howe, 2007.

© Peter Howe
Contributing Editor