Is Website-Envy Provoking Digital Plagiarism?

Programmers involved in web design and development are arguably somewhat distanced from the nature, form and origin of much of the content that they make sparkle and shine. Should we be surprised then by news of data that shows an 89 per cent rise in the number of content disputes involving web sites over the past year and research showing that of 152 UK SMEs questioned, more than one third (39 per cent) admit to currently feeling envious of a web site belonging to a competitor.

Programmers involved in web design and development are arguably somewhat distanced from the nature, form and origin of much of the content that they make sparkle and shine. Should we be surprised then by news of data that shows an 89 per cent rise in the number of content disputes involving web sites over the past year and research showing that of 152 UK SMEs questioned, more than one third (39 per cent) admit to currently feeling envious of a web site belonging to a competitor. Could this envy be translating itself in digital plagiarism do you think?

Personally, I do a spot of copywriting for an RIA-specialist web design agency who look after clients including a well-known coffee brand. Although their site is super slick and sparkles beautifully with Flash, AIR and Silverlight goodies, I’m willing to bet that the design team doesn’t spend hours pouring (no pun intended) over the bean brewing content that they dutifully host up when they are given it. Not that that it should be their responsibility anyway.

Wasn’t it English author and Anglican priest William Ralph Ing who said, “What is originality? Undetected plagiarism.”

Technology journalism also suffers from this problem. As soon as I post this blog it will crop up as a headline on various ‘news-crawler’ type aggregation sites. I suppose the difference being that these sites will host a link directly back to the original source here on ZDNet.co.uk. What we are talking about in the wider sense here is the theft of whole chunks of content and the re-purposing of it under a completely new guise.

The aforementioned survey emanated from a web hosting provider called Fasthosts Internet Ltd. The company suggests that an alarming number of UK firms are finding that material (such as artwork, descriptive text or product images) has been copied from their web site and published elsewhere. The problem varies from the occasional image being used to entire web site designs being replicated. Fasthosts operates its own in-house ‘Abuse Department’ (no Monty Python argument jokes please) so I guess they would know.

Spending a lot of time looking at web developer and designer touch-points and always keen to examine the burning issues of the day as I am. I actually used Sunday to get in touch with Fasthosts through a friend of a friend and the company’s Steve Holford told me, “It is particularly the case that in a challenging economic climate such as now, that business owners may be tempted by the quick-fix of copying another firm’s work. Significantly, we found that 10 per cent of participants in our survey had at least one item of their own company web site copied by a third party between March 2008 and March 2009.”

I also contacted a quite prolific chap called Aral Balkan who describes himself as a ‘User Experience Designer and Developer’ on this subject. Aral told me, ”If you're producing online content, chances are that you will have to deal with plagiarism, copyright infringement and identity misappropriation at some point in your career. In my experience, very few content producers today are aware of their own intellectual property rights. Many don't even know that copyright is inherent in any work you produce, that you don't have to register your work. Even fewer understand the importance of licensing their work – whether under Creative Commons or a commercial license – and the differences between various licenses which can have a profound impact on the balance between the amount of control you maintain over your work and what other people can do with it.”

“At the very least, I would urge everyone – content producers and consumers (not that those two roles are mutually exclusive these days) – to read up on the various Creative Commons licenses and the differences between them and to always publish their work with some sort of license, even if it is a public domain declaration,” he added.

What’s the answer then? Surely we need automated tools to scrape the web looking for highlighted phrases in recently posted content to constantly look for plagiarised material. These must exist already but if they were used more would this make a difference? Sadly I think probably not. Perhaps the advent of web 3.0 will see much of this eradicated as the web becomes a more sophisticated and more fully evolved beast as it must logically do in the years ahead.

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