On Plagiarism, Snake Oil and Prayer

Peter Kim and David Armano both posted on the subject of Plagiarism recently. I started responses to both -- but today's post is largely a response to Peter's post from yesterday.  Actually, this started as a comment and grew - and I'm warning you now -- it's a somewhat unedited rant. 

In truth, nothing is really free. There is a direct cost associated with research and the work we do as professionals. Our time is worth money -- so are our thoughts.  For excellence junkies like myself and many of my peers, there is also the emotional capital we invest in birthing original thought, visualizing something new and contributing something of value to our community.  

We rationalize giving "stuff" away with the argument that this will help build our influence, credibility, stimulate discussion and build relationships that yield specific business outcomes (gigs, sales, etc.).  By and large, this works.  So we do it because the trade off is, in some sense, profitable.  

This is true even when we deal with bad apples:  These are the copy cats and snake oil salesmen who skirt licensing and permissions and make unethical use of IP and content. We've all seen them at work and many of us have seen our work replicated and re-branded by others in a way that has been disconcerting - and even maddening.

In response to the snakes..n. I have always tried to maintain an optimistic perspective.  I generally believe what goes around, comes around... and that MOST people aren't jerks. I have held out hope that smart people will be able to recognize the copy cats and snake-oil salesmen.

In short -- didn't question the trade off, until recently...

In the not to distant past, I encountered a situation where one of my course attendees from a major university announced her intention to take my ideas and course materials and repackage them into a workshop, for which she was charging a premium.  Prior to taking my class, this individual couldn't recognize an ear from an elbow with regard to social media - yet the person's desire to reincarnate into a social media "guru"seemed focused and intentional.

I made the discovery two days before the class. While at first I was amused, I then considered the hefty, password protected companion website I'd created for the course.  It featured my own laboriously assembled class presentations as well as an array of fully accredited and referenced articles, how-to's, videos, research, case studies , etc. from a variety of sources (some of which I paid to license and others from respected sources and peers in the field).

Needless to say, the site took weeks to assemble - not including the months of collecting I'd done or the pre-course survey I did to make sure I had content tailored to specific types of business.  To be honest, if I'd counted those hours in my prep time, I didn't break even teaching that course.  However, in truth, I didn't put the site together for money.  I wanted to be open about sharing - promote the outstanding work of folks in my social media network -- and enable course participants (mostly SMB's) to help themselves succeed long after I was gone.  

I never considered that a course participant might build success by repackaging my work and charging others for it! 

After doing a sanity check with a few good friends, I responded by:  
  • Adding a Creative Commons License to the Wiki with legal disclaimers  
  • Adding a course segment on social media ethics where planned to address this type of issue and my practice of taking legal action against offenders. 
  • Praying to God for wisdom about how to deal with the problem.
    What happened next is something people have called "Divine Intervention."  My "copy cat" was stricken by a "freak illness" the day before class and ended up hospitalized during the days of the course. As a no-show, the person never gained access to the course materials - and I was relieved.

    Crisis averted...but BOY did it all make me think ...
    • Has this made me more reticent to trust? Yes Peter!  Absolutely.
    • Has it made me think more carefully about what and how I share? Yes - and I think I'm afraid I'm still too open for my own good ...
    • Is Plagiarism changing how I will proceed with monitoring and Creative Commons attribution? Yes.
    • Will the tools and monitoring and licensing be enough? No, Peter!  I don't think so - and here's why:
    In my opinion -- beyond the lack of proper awareness and education in this area, I believe the plague of plagiarism is a reflection of a larger crisis of ethics.  

    As we both know: You can't legislate morality.  

    Consider the fact that most people do not think twice about ripping CDs and sharing music and images in a manner that is an active violation of Federal Law. The sad truth is that the illegal use of material and especially digital assets is pervasive in our cultures...often "accepted" and practiced -- in households, businesses and even churches across our nation and around globe. While there are some who won't do this because of their own moral convictions -- It is likely that a large number of our readers do this without thinking!

    So, why should people view our digital content and IP any differently?

    I submit that they do not.  We'll see the results outside of business service offerings, white papers and blog posts in the term papers of the future.  And with the proliferation of media, it may be more and more difficult to figure out where people are getting their material in the future.

    Moving forward, what can we do?  Lots of good comments on Peter's post aboout this.  My thoughts:

    1. Each one of us must take initiative to protect our investments with the resources and tools we have at our disposal.  My tool kit includes many of the ones Peter mentioned... Many of these will mature over time - and get better and helping us monitor the "snakeosphere."

    2. We can leverage the law where it matters most.  Existing laws should help protect us, but I'll go out
    on a limb to assert that the law may be most useful for those with a great deal of time and money to spare. For a large number of us, using the law and the courts to resolve issues is likely to be "resource prohibitive." 

    3. We can find ways to empower the "Social Media Sphere" to police itself.   Community and peer pressure can often go far to change the behavior of the masses.  Many of us have asked questions about what we can do about plagiarism. The big question is how we can police ourselves without giving seedy people attention they may actually benefit from?  Stuff like mentions, site traffic, inbound links, etc.  Google doesn't penalize people for "negative" attention. ;-)

    To his credit, Peter "ousted" a few offenders in the comments field of yesterday's post.  It needed to be done. However, this is slightly problematic from the standpoint that publicly ousting a snake oil salesman from a high profile, thought leader's blog immediately creates traffic and links in to the web properties of the offender that can boost things like the "T-rating" "G-rating" and site traffic and comments. On the up-side, a least we know who to look out for! The problem is, this can result in greater visibility that might work in the individual's favor...

    Also to his credit, Armano didn't link to the guy who was ripping off his feed (at least I didn't see a link).  Incidentally, guy was ripping off feeds from other thought leaders, making up quotes and facts about himself,.  This guy even had the audacity to rip off his entire site design from Google, and swipe a commercial social media video created by Sprint, removing the brand name and inserting his own!   I'll admit that when I saw this guy at work, I wanted to "out" him to everyone I knew  -- "sicking the social media community" on his butt, so to speak... Perhaps we all did -- but we seemed to apply restraint so as not to give this guy any attention that might be used to his advantage. The problem with this is, we can't warn others about the snake oil peddlers this way.

    Moving forward, perhaps using a hash tag on Twitter like #snakeoil  - just  as a way to index this discussion. I'n not sure that would be highly effective as a policing method, though. A few people have suggested creating a "Snake Oil Wiki"  - and I'd say it would have to require people to submit screen-grabs of an accused person's offenses AND (in the interest of fairness) offer a forum for accused individuals to defend themselves.  This way - it's fair and the evidence remains when sites are changed (as they often are post-discovery). Not sure who wants to take that on, from a legal perspective...but it'd certainly require counsel and legal backup!

    In the mean time, I'll continue on...trying hard to provide value and trying to be an optimist.  I'll rely on the tools that are available -- in addition to applying prayer as needed when the jerks try to ruin my day. After all, as my story tells, it has proven to be my most effective tool, to date!   ;-)


    Peter Kim said...

    Lots to think about here, Leigh.

    Reminds me of a conversation I had a with a woman who has made a career of corporate training. She found it fascinating that I did so many workshops, because she would *never* do the same as the modus operandi in her industry was to steal anything you saw and use it as your own. That was an incredibly fragmented industry and the problem persists today.

    I see the same and have been shocked to see graphics from David Armano and Jeremiah Owyang included in keynote-level presentations at major industry conferences, without attribution. Problem is, most attendees don't know the difference.

    Lots to think about.

    LivePath said...

    The combination of denial, laziness and ignorance is a sad thing.

    Many people in our industry are producing some thoughts that are important to ongoing dialog.

    At minimum, where authors don't profit directly (and MANY of us don't) there should at least be attribution.

    Larry Irons said...

    Most professors/instructors check for plaigarism in work submitted to meet requirements from a course. You've given a slightly different angle on it. However, I'd submit that most of the weight of a post, or other content, comes from the person providing it as much as it does from the content per se. If I ripped off the content of someone with a much more substantial following than myself, say Peter Kim or David Armano, it is much less likely to provide the returns you could expect from the originator. That reality aside, shedding light on digital theft is the only real protection, unless of course you are an instructor who can assign and "F" to the content.

    JMaultasch said...

    Interesting post and definitely a huge problem in our industry. Appreciate you wrestling with the issue in public. It is hard to know what's right. You talked about a carefully curated library of other examples and I thought immediately about how valuable I consider my own bookmarks.

    I wonder where we draw the line? I love the idea of #snakeoil and think Google juice/whuffie should help fight some abuses.

    Cindy Stanford said...

    I keep my chin up by believing that my efforts to give credit where credit is due identify me as a person of credibility. I associate with honest people, another indicator that I'm likely to be honest.

    Do you think snakeoil customers are likely to be people who don't do their homework or have some other flaw that makes them ripe for the swindling?

    Georgi Nemtzov said...

    Dear Leigh, I feel for you. I wasted a great deal of frustration on the same issue until I decided to look at it from a different perspective:

    Universe does not exist to please us and life isn't fair for anyone. We humans have different potential, skills, and circumstances around our lives, but we have one thing in common - we are all using what we have in order to survive. Some are trying to protect their IP, knowledge or information for their individual advantage, others are trying to steal or commodify it - the whole development of social media is about that. Like it or not, it's a global struggle for fairness.

    My reactions to this phenomenon developed in 3 stages:

    - 1st I complained about being robbed and demanded rules which protected my IP. Nothing changed. You can't go ask a system to destabilize itself.
    - I changed the rules myself in my advantage. As a response the other side tried constantly to do the same, which resulted in an exhausting and unproductive struggle.
    - Ultimately I decided to cooperate for mutual benefit. Now everyone is happy in this symbiotic relationship. We acknowledge each other's right of survival and respect our differences. And why shouldn't we? By joining our complimentary abilities we significantly increase our individual chances of survival.

    If I find a way to get appropriate benefit from what I create, I don't care about attribution.

    LivePath said...


    Sorry for the delayed response. I don't disagree with what you are saying here - it merely goes to underscore what I've written.

    To be clear, this wasn't a post complaining about the bad behavior of others - it was a post talking about what to do about it. The value tradeoff is readily addressed, along with ways to protect oneself legally from those who would behave with disregard for the "mutual behefit" you espouse. Wise as a serpent - gentle as a dove.

    I never asked for pity - nor had a pity party for myself - I offered a case scenario that underscores some of the shady behavior happening with snakes and sharks in this field. I also offered concrete suggestions about what to do about this behavior.

    If you have concrete recommendations to share about creating the "win win" we're all ears. I always appreciate people who add vslur to the dialog.

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    I’m Leigh Durst, a 20 year veteran in business, operations, customer strategy, ecommerce, digital & social media and marketing. Simply put, I’m a strategist that helps companies (start-up to blue chip) achieve business shift, create more compelling online and offline experiences. I also write, speak and teach about experience design and next-generation business. I’m a futurist, visionary, strategist, doer and connector with a passion for people and helping others. When I’m not on the road, you’ll find me in the San Francisco bay area, working, beaching it and hanging out with my family and dog.


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