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The Kidnapping of Content

By Sam Vaknin
Posted Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Latin kidnapped the word "plagion" from ancient Greek and it ended up in English as "plagiarism". It literally means "to kidnap" - most commonly, to misappropriate content and wrongly attribute it to oneself. It is a close kin of piracy. But while the software or content pirate does not bother to hide or alter the identity of the content's creator or the software's author - the plagiarist does. Plagiarism is, therefore, more pernicious than piracy.

Enter Turnit.com. An off-shoot of (www.iparadigms.com), it was established by a group of concerned (and commercially minded) scientists from UC Berkeley.

Whereas digital rights and asset management systems are geared to prevent piracy - plagiarism.org and its commercial arm, Turnit.com, are the cyber equivalent of a law enforcement agency, acting after the fact to discover the culprits and uncover their misdeeds. This, they claim, is a first stage on the way to a plagiarism-free Internet-based academic community of both teachers and students, in which the educational potential of the Internet can be fully realized.

The problem is especially severe in academia. Various surveys have discovered that a staggering 80%(!) of US students cheat and that at least 30% plagiarize written material. The Internet only exacerbated this problem. More than 200 cheat-sites have sprung up, with thousands of papers available on-line and tens of thousands of satisfied plagiarists the world over. Some of these hubs - like cheater.com, cheatweb or cheathouse.com - make no bones about their offerings. Many of them are located outside the USA (in Germany, or Asia) and at least one offers papers in a few languages, Hebrew included.

The problem, though, is not limited to the ivory towers. E-zines plagiarize. The print media plagiarize. Individual journalists plagiarize, many with abandon. Even advertising agencies and financial institutions plagiarize. The amount of material out there is so overwhelming that the plagiarist develops a (fairly justified) sense of immunity. The temptation is irresistible, the rewards big and the pressures of modern life great.

Some of the plagiarists are straightforward copiers. Others substitute words, add sentences, or combine two or more sources. This raises the question: "when should content be considered original and when - plagiarized?". Should the test for plagiarism be more stringent than the one applied by the Copyright Office? And what rights are implicitly granted by the material's genuine authors or publishers once they place the content on the Internet? Is the Web a public domain and, if yes, to what extent? These questions are not easily answered. Consider reports generated by users from a database. Are these reports copyrighted - and if so, by whom - by the database compiler or by the user who defined the parameters, without which the reports in question would have never been generated? What about "fair use" of text and works of art? In the USA, the backlash against digital content piracy and plagiarism has reached preposterous legal, litigious and technological nadirs.

Plagiarism.org has developed a statistics-based technology (the "Document Source Analysis") which creates a "digital fingerprint" of every document in its database. Web crawlers are then unleashed to scour the Internet and find documents with the same fingerprint and a colour-coded report is generated. An instructor, teacher, or professor can then use the report to prove plagiarism and cheating.

Piracy is often considered to be a form of viral marketing (even by software developers and publishers). The author's, publisher's, or software house's data are preserved intact in the cracked copy. Pirated copies of e-books often contribute to increased sales of the print versions. Crippled versions of software or pirated copies of software without its manuals, updates and support - often lead to the purchase of a licence. Not so with plagiarism. The identities of the author, editor, publisher and illustrator are deleted and replaced by the details of the plagiarist. And while piracy is discussed freely and fought vigorously - the discussion of plagiarism is still taboo and actively suppressed by image-conscious and endowment-weary academic institutions and media. It is an uphill struggle but plagiarism.org has taken the first resolute step.

About the Author
Sam Vaknin is the author of Malignant Self Love - Narcissism Revisited and After the Rain - How the West Lost the East. He is a columnist for Central Europe Review, United Press International (UPI) and eBookWeb and the editor of mental health and Central East Europe categories in The Open Directory, Suite101 and searcheurope.com.

Visit Sam's Web site at (http://samvak.tripod.com)