On Originality, Blogging Content and Copying

2009 November 11
by Grace Boyle

Something recently happened to me that spurred this post.  I have kept quiet about this to remain respectful and ensure everything has been smoothed over but in light of transparency, I wanted to share with everyone.

This month I was contacted by an editor of a newspaper (to remain nameless). I was complimented on my blog and writing. I was then called by the editor (I gave my number, they said they wanted to talk). They proceeded to tell me a young journalist of theirs said some of my blog posts replicated the writing from the column she wrote – many of which, were word-for-word, matching my posts.

lets-write-something-writing-4545938-1024-768Photo Credit

I was floored. I could hear my heart beating. My mouth was gaping. I hadn’t heard of this newspaper until now and I later found out this journalist was young, at least younger than me. Quickly, I gathered my wits (still on the phone) and with firm assertion I spoke how each blog post was my original content. I often speak of specific personal experiences in my life and many of my ideas for posts also come from other bloggers, writers and journalists. However, I always properly cite, mention the article, author and include quotations.

Long story short, the editor believed me and knew I was telling the truth. Some of the posts she mentioned that were word for word came from series I was asked to participate in through other blogging friends. The truth always surfaces. I was able to prove every single one of the blog posts that this young journalist on their team had ‘taken’ or ‘borrowed’ from me for her columns.

At first I was angry. I don’t like to be accused and played the fool, but then I found out later that the motive wasn’t to point the finger, but rather help someone learn a lesson.

I told my friend about all this and he said, “Take it as a compliment.” Maybe. Yet, even deeper into the issue is that this happens a good deal. There’s no one really regulating this. It’s not like in college where Professors keep tabs on plagiarism. In fact, annotated bibliographies and MLA format greatly influences my blogging (in a positive way, thanks to college thesis papers and professors who taught me to write). In this case, I had no idea my work was being ‘borrowed’ – the newspaper was in print and is based out of another country.

Therein lies the idea of originality in content. Like I said, I will read a well-written article from my favorite blogger(s) or even the New York Times and immediately be itching to write about a similar topic. That’s how inspiration works. We feed off each other and bounce ideas off each other. Can you name a writer who isn’t inspired externally from something or someone which in turn, fuels their work? This inspiration will come on and offline. Sometimes it’s clear when we cite another blogger, another time it has to do with a conversation we had with a friend in real life.

Where Does Original Content Originate?

Carlos Miceli talks about original content and “How to Avoid Echo Online.” He explains how a fellow blogger posted on the same topic he was currently writing about but hadn’t posted yet. Carlos decided to not post and referred his readers “to the original content,” (the fellow blogger’s blog). Carlos simply stated had nothing to add, so he didn’t want to paraphrase. Makes sense.

Yet, I argued, “If someone writes about an idea or topic, should you not write about it from your point of view? If that were the case and you scoured the millions of blogs out there, maybe many of us wouldn’t have ‘original’ content or have a source…no two people think the same.” I could probably find a handful of bloggers who have all written about that very topic. Who is the source? Is there one? Would that make Carlos unoriginal if he went and posted on the topic as originally planned? No. It would make him a contributor. A blogger. A purveyor of thought.

Near the end of this experience with the newspaper and editor, the young journalist actually e-mailed me to apologize. She said we have similar views and even writing style. Although I couldn’t see the writing samples (they’re in print and her column had been terminated) I didn’t disagree with her. I’m sure we do have similar views, experiences and writing style. That’s not my problem. The line is fine especially since she’s within my general age group. The part that stands out is she didn’t just take my topics, she took words and ideas.

Forgiving and Moving Forward

This was a good experience to go through. I’m not salty. She was forgiven and I even offered insight to the young journalist as she asked for my opinion and thoughts on the matter. I told her to learn from her mistake, always be honest and this shouldn’t stop her from writing.

My writing has always been copyrighted, but it doesn’t protect me from the ‘borrowers’ of the world. That’s okay. I can only hope to continue to pave the way with my thoughts and beliefs, learn from others, share topics and give credit, where credit is due.

What do you think about originality and blogging? Do you reference your sources or do you  become lazy in the process? Have you ever had someone copy your work without properly citing it?

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  • http://www.owlsparks.com/ Carlos Miceli

    Here's the thing:

    – If you have something new to say, and also know of a previously published article, then write about it and also refer people to that content.

    – If you have something to say, but haven't stumbled with that content before, just write about it. I'm not saying we should look endlessly on the web for that person who wrote about it first.

    – If you want to say something, but you know of someone who said EXACTLY what you wanted to say, then why say it again? Refer people there.

    Hope this will clear some doubts of what I mean.

    Great post by the way Grace.

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  • http://blog.monicaobrien.com Monica O'Brien

    It's hard for me to understand how you can't be more angry about this.

    I agree that bloggers don't really ever write anything new. It's difficult to do so, and I can't think of a single post on my blog with a topic that wasn't “written” before by someone else. I also can't think of a post I wrote with a topic that wasn't written about 6 months later by another blogger.

    But that's okay. Blogging is more about perspective than topic. People are constantly entering the online conversation and the same topics will come up over and over again. There will be new readers interested in the same topic, itching for the same experience we all had as new readers.

    I'm sorry that your work was (it sounds like) plagiarized. I think there is still a fine line between someone lifting your words without quoting them and someone writing about the same topic.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Carlos As I mentioned when explaining your story (above) what you said made sense. I just wanted to highlight the other side of the story. Very rarely does someone say EXACTLY what I want to say so it's a different approach for me.

    I also wanted to bring up the idea of originality or 'the original content' as you call it because I really don't think there is one writer with THE original content. Maybe it's a technicality, but I think it's interesting with all the blogs out there and us talking about originality. Not to mention, someone actually copying my work and printing into their column (which is a whole new game). I thought the two tied together, so thank you for commenting and helping to inspire this post :)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Monica I was and and still am angry. However, there comes a point where you have to move on and let go. I was honest and terse with the editor as well as the young journalist who e-mailed me. They canceled her column and reprimanded her (from what I understand).

    What more can I do? I actually really would love your opinion on this matter because this hasn't happened to me on this scale before.

    You bring up a great point about perspective versus topic, it's very true. I'm sorry my work was plagiarized as well and like I said, I wouldn't care if she wrote about all the same topics as me (that's part of blogging) it's the ideas and words that were lifted and not cited that was bothersome.

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  • http://blog.monicaobrien.com Monica O'Brien

    Grace,

    I actually admire you for trying to let it go – from your post you just seemed to be so okay with it. I was just thinking if that happened to me I would be so angry. I wasn't trying to imply you should do anything else, because you are right in that you have to let it go. My comment was more of a reflection on myself – how I would have trouble letting it go and being so kind about it on my blog.

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  • LostInCheeseland

    Sounds like you go about this the right way. Inspiration does and should come from a number of sources. For me, it often originates from a book I'm reading, a store I pass on the street or even a conversation I overheard. What's important is to give credit when necessary. To lay out your inspiration explicitly to your readers as the foundation of your post which is followed by your original ideas. I agree, take it as a compliment! The journalist probably got a slap on the wrist!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Monica Oh yes, letting go isn't easy :)

    I see what you mean as your comment was a means of self reflection. It's interesting when something like this happens (a non-experience, it's never happened to me before) I wasn't sure how I should act. I definitely went through the motions of confusion, anger, annoyed then tried to move on, let go and forgive. I guess I try to practice empathy, with a mix of practicality. Thanks for sharing and offering your insight.

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @LostInCheeseland Thanks for the reinforcement. I did as I knew best to handle the situation, but it still felt a bit awkward and unusual. In the end, it's all part of writing, blogging and self-publishing.

    I gain a lot of inspiration from books too and I love “a store I pass on the street,” for your blog inspiration. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://twitter.com/cassie_holman Cassie

    My question is, why would the young journalist bring this to light if she plagiarized it? (“a young journalist of theirs said some of my blog posts replicated the writing from the column she wrote – many of which, were word-for-word, matching my posts.”)

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Cassie You bring up a good point. I don't know all the background information but as I know it, it wasn't just my blog that she had copied. I believe the editor(s) approached her, regarding her work, and she retaliated saying I had copied hers. The rest unfolded from there.

    When she personally emailed me she seemed bashful and apologetic…

  • http://thetylerhayes.com Tyler Hayes

    Both of your thoughts are great, and not mutually exclusive.

    I often have these thoughts myself, though I worry that sometimes bloggers may consider themselves closer to journalists when in fact we are not.

    So thank you Grace for helping me with my own qualms on originality (though of course many still remain), and thank you Carlos for unexpectedly defining categories which were amorphously fumbling around in my own head, waiting to be defined!

  • http://twitter.com/diamondkt David Stehle

    They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. So in a way you should feel complimented by that newspaper journalist who plagiarized you. However, on the other hand, I too would be pissed so I can completely understand it upsetting you. Credit should always be given where credit is due – period.

    Now when it comes to blogging I think it’s next to impossible to accuse someone for stealing your blog post idea because just think how many blogs and bloggers exist! It’s inevitable that people are going to end up writing about similar topics sooner or later – there is only so much new stuff going on in the world at any given time. I once had a girl accuse me of “stealing her blog post idea.” My reaction – WTF? I didn’t even know her, nor did I read her blog, so how can you accuse me of mindreading? It was ridiculous.

    However, it’s only normal for other writers/bloggers to inspire you to write something on your own. Such was the case in a recent post of mine about Personal Branding where previous blog posts by Carlos Miceli and another blogger got my mind thinking and made me sit down to write…

    http://diamondkt.blogspot.com/2009/11/youre-per

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @David I agree that it's next to impossible to accuse someone for stealing your blog post ideas.

    That was what I had to say re: Carlos but in his defense, he just meant that if someone happens to say the exact same thing you want to, no need to paraphrase. That's his style and originality (to his very word and thought) is important. I have no problem quoting 2-3 paragraphs of another blogger and including it on my blog. Some people may not have seen the amazing writing so I want to give the credit and also preview it on my blog, then say what I have to say.

    Thanks for providing your recent post on PB. I too, am not the biggest fan and parts of personal branding turn me off :) Nonetheless, inspiration is like a pinball machine, other bloggers spawned that post, but without a doubt it was filled with your honest thoughts and ideas. Thanks for sharing!

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Tyler No problem, it's all about sharing ideas and provoking thought. Carlos always does that for me.

    One last point: One of the reasons I love blogging so much is because there isn't one right way. Find what works for you, embrace it, then also be sure to learn from others. Thanks for sharing and offering your insight.

  • http://twitter.com/cassie_holman Cassie

    Wow, bashful and apologetic to say the least, I'm sure. Thanks for sharing this story.

  • http://www.theartofawkward.com/ elaineellis

    It is a compliment. Your writing is wonderful and improves with each blog post.

    Yet, a lot of sweat and time goes into maintaining your blog. We all know cut and pasting is stealing if we've gone through elementary school. We don't blog for credit per se, but that doesn't mean it gives others the right to siphon off our words.

    Funny story, I once turned a plagiarist into The New York Times, and they did a story.

  • http://www.selfpersonal.com/blog Kim – inspirational thoughts

    The one thing I've learned over the years is that people learn differently. Varying perspectives help aid in the learning process. Maybe I explain something from my point of view that doesn't click with someone, but the way you explain it does.

    Like you say – content 'stealing' as I like to refer to it as – is more common that you realize. I think we must focus on continuing to provide value. Over time, people know the difference (or I like to believe so).

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Kim Your answer is eloquent and you bring up a good point. We must continue to provide value and like I said, truth alone triumphs. I think it comes out in the end, almost always. Thanks for sharing.

  • http://www.selfpersonal.com/blog Kim – inspirational thoughts

    The one thing I've learned over the years is that people learn differently. Varying perspectives help aid in the learning process. Maybe I explain something from my point of view that doesn't click with someone, but the way you explain it does.

    Like you say – content 'stealing' as I like to refer to it as – is more common that you realize. I think we must focus on continuing to provide value. Over time, people know the difference (or I like to believe so).

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Kim Your answer is eloquent and you bring up a good point. We must continue to provide value and like I said, truth alone triumphs. I think it comes out in the end, almost always. Thanks for sharing.

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  • http://wordpost.org Andrew Swenson

    Thanks for sending me the link here Grace.

    Your response was probably more professional than I could have mustered considering the circumstance.

    Not that you needed it, but you've earned a large portion of respect from me.

    -Andrew

  • http://www.smallhandsbigideas.blogspot.com Grace Boyle

    @Andrew Oh thank you. I didn't know how to quite react, so I remember to remain calm and think before I acted. But really, thanks for your support and kind words. It was an interesting and scary situation, but always something to learn from everything, right?

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