Word for Word: Protecting Your Content in the Internet Age

While scrolling through my inbox one day in May, I was excited to see the SmartBrief for Nutritionists email headline "Why Dietitians Are Important for the U.S. Olympic Team." I recognized many parts of the story. I had written them only a few days earlier for a FoodandNutrition.org online exclusive titled "London Calling: Sports Dietitians Are Helping Prepare World-Class Athletes for Olympics"—and I was happy to see my work shared!

However, when I clicked on the link and read the story, my blood pressure soared. The link led to an article on DietsInReview.com with the byline of someone named Lacy Jaye Hansen and no reference to me or my article.

After the Academy contacted DietsInReview.com, Hansen’s post was removed.

"The 'London Calling' article that was mistakenly published without the proper attribution on DietsInReview.com was not copied and republished in its entirety," says DietsInReview.com managing editor Brandi Koskie. "Our article was a 33 percent match to theirs. The text that matched was primarily quotes by the dietitians who were interviewed and those were not appropriately attributed. That source, and those quotes, should have absolutely been attributed from the start. Proper editorial checks weren’t in place that day and the piece published without the attribution, and that simply should not have happened."

A few days later, Koskie posted her own story—"US Olympics Is Taking a Record Number of Dietitians to London"—to the same Web address. Although it contained many of the same details as my article, Koskie refers to it as an original piece "that we interviewed, researched and wrote ourselves." Repeated requests for attribution to "London Calling" were ignored.

According to Koskie, DietsInReview.com does not have a policy for addressing infringement and plagiarism with its contributors and staff. "The Web is overrun by far more arrant cases of plagiarism and copyright infringement than this minor incident," said Koskie.

Plagiarism—stealing and passing off the ideas or words of another as one’s own—is a frequent if not unpleasant topic in academia, and disciplinary actions can range from a failing grade to expulsion. To serious journalists, plagiarism is considered among the most egregious ethical violations and can result in suspension or termination. But does the interpretation of plagiarism change from college campus to contemporary career?

I decided to look more closely into issues of copying, plagiarism and fair use in online media.

Pressure vs. Professionalism

"It's much easier to borrow quickly and in a larger quantity because you can cut and paste information," says David A. Craig, professor and associate dean for academic affairs at the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, and author of Excellence in Online Journalism: Exploring Current Practices in an Evolving Environment (Sage 2011). "But it's easier for editors and readers to catch plagiarism, so there are both of those dynamics working simultaneously."

Craig, who tweets about media ethics and journalism issues as @dcraigok, adds that because online communication is instant, the pressure to be first and the ability to get news out very quickly can raise the temptation to cut corners. "One of the challenges for bloggers is the particulars of how to do aggregation in an ethical manner," says Craig. "Part of the role of bloggers is to point out useful or interesting information on other people's websites. Obviously a link itself takes you to the original content, but then it becomes a question of how you represent that content and summary on your blog."

Legal Liabilities

In a court of law, plagiarism is not illegal unless the exploited work is actually copied—an offense known as infringement. 

"Obviously, the Internet has made copying much, much easier. It has also given rise to the false impression that anything available online is essentially in the public domain. That’s absolutely untrue," says Jorge Contreras, who teaches intellectual property law at American University’s Washington College of Law. "Rather, almost everything online—words, images, video, music—is copyrighted, and copying it without the author's permission is usually an infringement." 

However, even copyright infringement is not always cut and dried—thanks, in part, to an admittedly confusing and often misinterpreted doctrine called fair use. The Copyright Act establishes four factors that courts should consider when assessing whether something is fair use, which include the purpose and character of the use (such as commercial vs. nonprofit educational purposes); the nature of the copyrighted work (very creative work vs. a phone directory listing); the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole (just a few lines vs. the entire work); and the effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work (often called the Transformation Test).

Adding to fair use confusion is the misconception that copyrighted content is fair game as long as it doesn’t exceed a certain length. "There is no [such] lower limit or word count. Years ago, some publishers got together and agreed they would all adhere to a ‘300-word rule,’ but that was never recognized by the courts," says Contreras. "Infringement requires some copying of the original content, either verbatim or as a derivative work," says Contreras. "Plagiarism is a different matter entirely. It does not require copying— only the use of somebody else’s idea without attribution. However, it is not a legal violation." 

Ethical Responsibility 

Because of its rapidly changing environment, nuances of online media may not be specified in best practices for traditional news organizations—but the ethics surrounding plagiarism still apply, according to Fred Brown, past president of the Society for Professional Journalists and vice-chair of SPJ's Ethics Committee. 

"A number of bloggers and websites have adopted the SPJ’s Code of Ethics and make a note of that on their homepages," says Brown, who teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver. "There’s only one real absolute in that code. It’s a very short statement: Never plagiarize."

In addition, the position paper Plagiarism by the SPJ notes the responsibility of safeguarding against unethical behavior extends to the entire journalism community, describing the 2003 plagiarism and fabrication case of The New York Times' Jayson Blair as "a lack of oversight by his editors." 

"In other professions, there are licenses or certifications or associations you have to join if you want to succeed, but journalism doesn’t have that—nor should it because the First Amendment protects individual expression," says Brown. "So journalists—the ones who are serious and responsible—have adopted a self-regulatory system of calling attention to the ethical misdeeds of others. … The taking to task of Jayson Blair shows us how important credibility and originality are to a serious publication, because The New York Times and other [organizations] have gone to such extent to not only fire but publicly expose members of their staff who have committed this kind of ethical transgression. And I think it’s a good thing." 

As for my story, a Related Reading link to "London Calling" was added to the end of Koskie’s post only after DietsInReview.com was contacted for comment on this article. I never received attribution for my story or idea, but I hope sharing my experience will empower others to protect their work:

  • Register a copyright. If you own a website, blog or digital media outlet in which you are creating original content, register your articles and posts regularly with the U.S. Copyright Office. Web content technically is copyrighted as soon as it’s created, but taking the extra step of registering the individual pieces of work allows you to sue an infringing party for legal fees. (Learn how, why and how often to register your online content.)

  • Disclose the copyright. Don’t assume that visitors to your website or blog know your work is protected. Add a copyright statement to your website (for guidance, visit copyright.gov/circs/circ03.pdf) and be sure the copyright symbol with the year and name under which you registered appears on every page in your site, such as in a permanent banner or frame.

  • Monitor your content. How do you know if your work is plagiarized? To start, you can always Google unique phrases from your article and see what pops up. Sometimes this method works almost as well as fee-based systems; other times, it can be hit or miss. Luckily, there are a number of free detection systems—CopyScape.com, PlagiarismChecker.com, Plagiarisma.net, Duplichecker.com or Dustball.com/cs/plagiarism.checker—in which you plug your website URL or unique phrases into a search field. The results show similar posted content and statistics of how much of your original work was used.

  • Know your rights. If your work is used without permission, take a screenshot for your records. For work you created for a third party, contact that organization so it—as the holder of the copyright—can determine next steps. If you are the owner of the content and hold the copyright, contact the offending writer or editor, in writing, to request that the copied work be removed or attributed and include a deadline. (For advice on contacting a plagiarist, visit Plagiarismtoday.com and click on Stop Internet Plagiarism.)

Lastly, even if your detection results are clean, consider consulting an intellectual property lawyer—particularly if your online content impacts your brand or revenue— to review which parts of your work are protected. In the event that you do become a victim of infringement, you will already have a legal expert in your corner.

Christine Rosenbloom
Christine Rosenbloom, PHD, RDN, CSSD, FAND, is a nutrition professor emerita at Georgia State University. She has more than 30 years of experience in nutrition, with specialties in sports nutrition and gerontology.