With the enthusiasm of the novice freelancer, I was thrilled to win a new ‘contract’ with a specialist web site. (Although, actually, I never signed anything, nor did I receive anything in writing.)
The deal seemed straightforward enough. The site expected three or four articles a day on the areas it covered. Each piece was to be between 250 and 400 words long, and I was to receive the princely sum of £8 for each one. (When you’re freelancing, any scrap of work seems a godsend, and £24 a day adds up over time.) I would not be paid for any articles which were not used.
With hindsight the instructions were, arguably, not as clear as they might have been, with only a vague indication that the pieces should be ‘freshly written, and not regurgitated press releases.’ I was to go to two or three sources for each story, rather than relying on just one.
For a few months, it was an arrangement which, broadly speaking, worked. The site got its articles, I got my money. The work was enjoyable and regular, and I was paid on time. What more could any freelancer ask for? It also gave a framework to an otherwise unstructured day, a reason to get up and log on in the morning, and a guaranteed source of income each month.
When I first began writing for the site, I was given a bookmarked list of sources to trawl for stories. The site was read by employers, who used it mostly for the daily updates on changes to UK and EU law. So the bookmarked sites included the Confederation of British Industry, the TUC and other news sources.
As the weeks went by, I went through these stories every day, mindful of the need to demonstrate balance, such as representing both the trade union and employer sides of a particular story.
But I was also very aware that, at £8 a pop, each story had to be churned out quickly to remain worth my while. Too much time on each one would have left me almost in minimum wage territory. Some days, I just had too many things to juggle.
I relied heavily on my sources to hit deadlines, while following the initial advice to use more than one source per story. Where possible, I spoke to organisations directly for quotes, but, given the timescales, people rarely came back to me in time.
I tried to alter the wording, rather than doing a straight ‘cut and paste’ job. I certainly believed that I'd changed the wording enough. While it vaguely crossed my mind that plagiarism could be a potential issue, I had a naïve idea that Internet articles were in the public domain and therefore not subject to any copyright laws. How wrong could I be?
Out of the blue, one Monday morning in February, came an email from the website’s editor, explaining that a national personnel magazine from a large London publishing company (a competitor), had complained that our site had been plagiarising its content. The magazine cited three instances of copied articles, going back to December. My editor added that, while I could continue writing for him - at least for now - he had ordered a full investigation. The email included a warning that I could be the subject of legal action as a result.
All week, worried sick, I thought about little else. The Citizens’ Advice Bureau could only gulp that I should get myself a lawyer. A law centre offering help through Legal Aid promised to call back but never did. The NUJ couldn’t help as I wasn’t a member at the time.
A contact, a former lawyer, assured me, rightly, that I couldn’t personally be charged with plagiarism, or breaching copyright, only the website - as the publisher -could be. He reckoned I could mount a robust defence. When I heard from my editor again a few days later, confirming several incidences of plagiarism, my friend advised me to tone down my response, telling me I didn’t have to be so grovelling. I pointed out the problems with time, and stressed, truthfully, that the ‘plagiarised’ stories were the minority of my total output for the site. I was guilty of naivety, foolishness and downright carelessness, though not deliberate malice or knowing deception.
My editor telephoned me at the end of that week, and we thrashed out a resolution which did not involve legal action. Inevitably, it did mean I could no longer work for the site, and I agreed to write off what would have been my final invoice - worth over £500.
I also agreed to go back over every single story I had written for them (dozens and dozens, over the weeks) and cite the sources I had used for each. This took me at least a full day, and was, of course, unpaid. At the same time, the site reserved the right to take legal action in the future, should any further allegations arise.
The impact on my fledgling business was huge. And personally, I was left feeling not a little ashamed and embarrassed. I'd always wanted to work ethically and within the law. Yes, the site could have been more rigorous in some aspects of its approach. It didn’t help that I worked for several different editors during my time with them. Certainly my last editor took the issue seriously, but, then again, this was his business, established by his own hard graft, and his reputation, too, was at stake.
But, in the end, it came down to me: my mistake. I know things could have turned out far worse. And, as a trained journalist, I should have known better. I also know that it will never happen again.
What the Law Says
High profile cases always hit the headlines, such as that of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, alleged to have plagiarised a quote for an online column from another writer’s blog. And TV psychiatrist Raj Persaud was suspended from practising a year ago for bringing his profession into disrepute after copying extensively from academic colleagues in articles and a book.
But what exactly is plagiarism, and how is it different from copyright?
In his article, Plagiarism and the Law, Joss Saunders, a partner in law firm Blake Lapthorn Tarlo Lyons, plagiarism covers a wide spectrum – from verbatim copying to reproducing ideas and arguments.
The golden rule, the one which got Dr Persaud into so much trouble, is, of course, to acknowledge your sources. As Joss Saunders says:
‘If you quote from another author, and provide the citation, then in general you are not a plagiarist.’
But even providing an acknowledgement doesn’t mean you can help yourself to whatever you like, especially with material which may have an economic value.
To establish copyright infringement, copying must have taken place, and it copying needs to have been substantial. Generally speaking, the question of acknowledgement is irrelevant in terms of copyright infringement.
If you take an idea and express it differently, in a new article, then generally this does not constitute a breach of copyright.
As Saunders points out, it’s an odd fact that:
‘An author may be a plagiarist, but not an infringer of copyright, while another
author may infringe copyright, even though he is not a plagiarist, because he or she has provided an acknowledgement.’
Plagiarism remains a minefield, a huge issue that is unlikely to go away anytime soon. The Internet may have made it easier to copy work, but sites like Copyscape make it easier for plagiarists to be discovered.
The message is clear. Don’t do it. Don’t think it’ll be OK, that you won’t get caught. And if you do have to copy someone else’s work, at the very least acknowledge your sources.