Plagarism, idea theft, and writing online.
I’ve been in a handful of discussions over the past few weeks about plagiarization: how should authors approach their work being directly or indirectly copied?
When I started writing online in 2007, I was writing to learn to write, and my early stuff showed that, by which I mean it wasn’t very good. I mostly documented stuff I was learning in Django like creating a middleware for Google Analytics (please don’t follow any advice in that article: it’s 15 years out of date) or setting up Django and Nginx on Slicehost (Slicehost no longer exists). As I moved towards management, I was particularly inspired by Michael Lopp’s blog, who was, for me, a rare and thoughtful writer on engineering management.
There were certain elements of Lopp’s writing that made it a Lopp post, in particular the illustrative introduction story, like this one starting Free Electron. Did I try to steal Lopp’s approach to using introductory stories? Absolutely! Even today, much of my writing starts with a story following the pattern that I stole from Lopp, like this recent post on migrations. You can argue that Lopp is “just” using a lede, which I certainly learned about in school, but his particular approach to ledes was the one that inspired me.
There are many other cases where I’ve adopted folks’ techniques after reading them. When I started reading Brie Wolfson’s The Kool-Aid Factory, her brilliant approach of including ready-to-use templates inspired me to experiment with the same approach in my latest project. Even the approach of grounding Staff Engineer in individual’s stories was strongly influenced by reading Peter Siebel’s Coders at Work some years back. Neither Brie nor Peter were the first person to use templates or interviews, but their specific usage directly influenced me and my writing.
These sorts of stylistic thefts are, from my perspective, an inevitable part of writing. Most early writers start by copying, but any developing writer, even if they’ve been writing for many decades, is encountering and incorporating new ideas of style into their approach. If an author accumulates enough of the specific writing tells from another author, I think it’s reasonable for the latter to privately grump about it, but if it’s a slight then it’s a very minor one. If you look closely enough, in most cases the “real” crime is being too successful with a borrowed style, which to a bystander is quite difficult to distinguish from jealousy.
On the other end of the plagiarism spectrum, sometimes folks will copy your written words verbatim. My most memorable plagiarism story is about a paid online course that later became my most consistent source of referral traffic. A reader realized the online course had plagiarized this post on system architecture, complained to the website hosting the course, and they added a link to my article. This was a direct theft of my words, but I also never bothered reaching out about it. It’s not that I wasn’t annoyed, rather online plagiarism is simply so fertile a loam that combatting it is futile. At that moment, it was particularly common to see spam blogs that would populate their articles by consuming and reformatting the contents of your RSS feed. It wasn’t unusual to see a few RSS-feed copying blogs spin up each week, and I simply ran out of care. Every case of bulk, verbatim plagiarism is driven by the myriad, anonymous denizens of the internet. Every minute spent pursuing automated mass word theft is a minute lost to a greater endeavor (and the bar for “greater” here is low, you could pass it by walking to the kitchen to fetch a nice snack).
Somewhere between these two extremes is the deliberate theft of ideas. It’s not unusual to see some successful writer’s most popular pieces rewritten by other authors without attribution. Rewrites come in many forms. Some capture all the ideas from an original post while also introducing new ideas, a hesitant stretch towards Hegelian synthesis. Others precisely follow the original post’s structure and ideas while avoiding reuse of the original words. Sometimes flawed writing practices facilitate deliberate idea theft cascading into the theft of words as discussed in this piece, but I’ve found that relatively infrequent.
Of these three categories–style theft, automated word theft, idea theft–this third category is the one that I find folks have the hardest time coming to terms with. Unlike new authors borrowing your style, it unequivocally exceeds social norms of good behavior. Unlike mass plagiarism by bots, it’s committed by an identifiable individual. Further, it’s subtle enough that you’ll usually only notice your writing’s direct, unauthorized descendents if one becomes particularly successful.
In the past, I invested a lot of emotional energy into being frustrated by this, but my learned perspective is that authors should focus on viewing the writing community as a source of inspiration to learn from and be challenged by. We should avoid the temptation to police it, even when behavior is unequivocally bad, simply because authors are poorly positioned to police these crimes. It’s difficult to determine if our motivation is coming from a place of hurt, fairness, legalism, gatekeeping, or elsewhere. Worse, the attempt to police behavior warps our relationship with the wider community of authors into something poisonous and like most poisons it doesn’t benefit us: even when it’s wholly accurate, calling folks out creates more visibility of their derived work, generates an impression of our own insecurity, and consumes our emotional energy.
It’s not that no one should pay attention to this, rather that the role of rating, ranking and remunerating authors is the dominion of readers. As I’ve never seen a single positive thing come from authors pursuing others for alleged idea theft, I’m grateful that readers take this on rather than me!