The Plagiarism Plague: Being Mindful of Creative Content

Posted by Tessa Wegert on July 20, 2016

On Tuesday, the night after Melania Trump gave a speech at the Republican National Convention, allegations surfaced that her staff had plagiarized part of Michelle Obama’s speech from the 2008 Democratic National Convention. Trump campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, initially claimed that they did not misappropriate content, and then by Wednesday afternoon, Meredith McIver, another staff writer, had publicly admitted to copying passages from Obama’s speech.

“I apologize for the confusion and hysteria my mistake has caused,” she said.

Claims of content theft are nothing new. Recently, comedian and actor Amy Schumer was accused of stealing jokes belonging to other comedians, charges that she, too, denies. Last year, singer Sam Smith was required to pay royalties to Tom Petty because his song “Stay With Me” very closely resembles Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”

Similarly, musical artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were obliged to pay close to $7.4 million to legendary singer Marvin Gaye’s children when a jury found similarities between Thicke and Williams’ “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”

Over the years, sites like Logo Thief have worked hard to call attention to plagiarism in design, but stealing ideas and the creative work of others is something that affects industries of all kinds. Countless writers and editors have found themselves embroiled in highly publicized and personally damaging allegations of content theft.

With 4.6 billion pieces of content produced every day, it isn’t hard to see how this might happen. Most likely, guilty content developers believe they can get away with using a snippet of material here and there without attributing its source. Consider, too, the evolution of content creation and the current publishing mindset. Publishers of all kinds now curate content in addition to creating original work and write stories based on aggregated blog posts and tweets, while fans of authors and brands rehash original characters and campaign concepts through fan fiction and fan art.

Like the song says, there are “blurred lines.” It isn’t always easy, for example, to know when it’s okay to incorporate a digital image or branded graphic into your work. Plagiarism is fraught with complexity and confusion, and that makes it something every creative should be mindful of.

Overcoming Plagiarism Allegations

When accused of content theft, some are quick to cry accidental plagiarism, or what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert and Wharton School professor Adam Grant call “kleptomnesia.” According to Grant, unintentional plagiarism is quite common, particularly in creative work. He points to an experiment conducted by two psychologists who asked participants to generate a number of ideas and then identify which of those they came up with themselves. Three quarters of the people partaking in the study claimed ownerships of ideas generated by someone else.

Part of the problem, particularly in journalism and online content development, is multitasking. As Grant points out in a blog post on the subject, reducing distractions can help ensure you don’t inadvertently adopt existing content as your own. He also notes that “Some creators have gone so far as avoiding work that they might accidentally steal.” This helps to cut down on the possibility that you will reuse ideas and creative concepts subconsciously.

Journalism resource The Poytner Institute, meanwhile, explains that tight deadlines can compound the content theft problem. When you’re in a rush to file a story, upload a Facebook post, or get new brand identity assets to a client, it’s easy to see how someone might mistake web-sourced notes or brand-related designs for their own.

Give Credit Where Credit is Due

So how do you avoid the dreaded situation of finding yourself accused of using someone else’s work? Be meticulous with your note taking, including all sources as you conducted your research; manage your time wisely; and attribute everything. Even if you aren’t sure how much of an existing idea you used or where another writer’s work ends and yours begins, cite those sources. It’s always better to give too much acknowledgment than not enough.

If, however, you find yourself accused of plagiarizing, it’s best to come clean. For a story on plagiarism written last year, the Columbia Journalism Review spoke with a former reporter who used a portion of a press release in his news story. “All I can say is that anytime you make a mistake like that, it has a short-term and a long-term impact, and both of them are huge,” the man said. “The best thing is to just be honest about it.”

Now more than ever, creative awareness is critical. As you create your content, whatever form it takes, always remember to give credit where credit is due.

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