Revisiting issues related to online content management

What I learned from plagiarists

Yesterday morning I learned that some of my blog posts and articles and even my trademark were being used by unlicensed and unauthorized businesses to promote themselves. It especially came as quite a shock that someone within professional CPA firms would go to my web site, copy an entire article, strip away the personally identifying information and then post it as their own. Apparently that happened at least at two different CPA firms and maybe more. CPAs are supposed to operate under a standard of ethical conduct that precludes “acts discreditable to the profession” under rules promulgated by the AICPA.

At first I was just emotionally upset. I should know by now that emotional upset never leads to any good outcome. By the end of the day, I actually gained some valuable insight into improving my business model. This is what I learned:

  • My  friend Sara pointed out that plagiarism is a form of flattery; a tangible sign that I’ve made a mark in my profession. She made me smile but this is of little other comfort.
  • Other CPAs in my online groups seemed equally outraged by the plagiarism. It was comforting having some community pull.
  • I have always allowed liberal use of my material for republishing on request. All I ask is that the republished work include a byline and a link back to the original source. I will now add emphasis of this policy on the bottom of each page of my web site now.
  • People simply do not understand copyright law especially as it pertains to online content.
  • Facebook seems to be the #1 conduit for the trollers who were apparently looking for information to take for their own web page. Even though the information was not published on Facebook, the violators apparently used Facebook links to find the material. There is no indication of wrongdoing by Facebook or any group leaders.
  • It’s almost always good for me to add personal perspective and anecdotes to my writing. It helps to lighten up the otherwise dry technical topics that I tend to cover in my writings. Now there is another reason. Personal perspective and anecdotes make it more difficult to steal the work and post it as your own.
  • I am reminded that I can catch more flies with honey than vinegar. One sole practitioner that I wrote to about a violation responded cordially and we resolved the matter without his admission or denial of knowingly doing anything wrong. We left on good terms, respectful of the other, and I felt good about that.
  • One larger CPA firm that published an unauthorized article simply removed the offending material without comment. I suppose they were more worried about legal liability than the smaller firms.
  • I don’t need to worry about some schmucks in another country stealing my material outside of the reach of U.S. copyright laws. The fact is that technical information is perceived to be only as good as the source it comes from. In this case, only U.S. based accountants and financial advisers could really benefit from my material.
  • I could probably make an unpaid career out of tracking down copyright and trademark violators. I won’t.
  • Over the course of my career I’ve earned more selling my writing about financial advisory services than in actually providing those services to clients. In that sense, my writings are my most valuable asset.
  • If I could find a new commercial publisher then dealing with plagiarism would be their problem, not mine. I’m working on it.
  • A professional web marketing adviser suggested that I put less useful information in my posts. “Why buy the cow when you get the milk for free?” was his argument. While I recognize the value of this advise from a marketing perspective, I reject it from a personal values perspective. I despise teaser content and “fluff” that dominates online publishing. I left a position with one publisher who asked me to produce that type of content. My writing has always been about providing useful, unique,practical and timely content. That is why it ranks highly in search engines and is widely read in comparison to others in the field. I’m not likely to make any dramatic switch in writing style. However, I should modify the content to include more compelling reasons to call me for follow-up. This can be done, I believe, without cutting into the meat and usefulness of the content.
  • These incidents of plagiarism are not the first and won’t be the last. I need to accept that. At this point I likely have close to 10,000 pieces of topical content compiled over 30 years, most of it published online somewhere. Most of it is obsolete junk. Some has commercial value. I’ll need to repeat the process of protecting it from time to time.

Overall, I’m happy to have gone through this mental exercise on the impact and implications of plagiarism. It can only help my writing get better in the future.


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