Imitation Might Be Flattery But Theft Isn’t

What to do if someone steals your content

Did I ever talk about the time someone stole my website content? All of it – word for word.

A few years ago, I crossed online paths with a woman who was pretty new to freelancing. She’d decided to make the switch from salaried employment to self-employment, and she was in need of some support, which I offered her over social media – loads of friendly chat, practical advice, and tips on how to get going.

Pretty nice of me, I thought.

I decided to check in with her a few weeks later to see how she was getting on – she’d added a website address to her Twitter profile, so I gave it a click.

It took me to her copywriting website – still a work in progress – on which she’d pasted my own content, in its entirety, along with helpful comments for her web designer, such as “Keep all this bit, it’s good,” (thanks!) and, “Going to rework this so it’s a bit different.”

Needless to say, she got a pretty strongly worded email and the content was removed within 12 hours.

LinkedIn Drama Llama

So why am I talking about this now?

I was browsing LinkedIn yesterday (as you do at 8pm on a Monday) and came across something similar. Once I’d got the popcorn out of the microwave, I came back for a good look at the situation – and boy, was it juicy.

A guy in my extended network, let’s call him Sam, had posted side-by-side screenshots of his profile and another guy’s, both of which featured the content Sam had written about himself.

The other guy – now cemented in my mind as Mr Hot Mess – had lifted the content and tried to pass it off as his own.

The comments were pretty busy, full of rampant British outrage (we sure do like calling out injustice when we see it) but what really surprised me was the number of people in the comments below the images criticising Sam for exposing Mr Hot Mess’s actions, despite the fact that Sam had been unable to contact him directly.

Among the critics, the prevailing idea seemed to be that this “imitation” was either just a bit cheeky, or actually a compliment – one that Sam should be grateful for.

And after all, commented a few, it’s only 10 lines. One guy even let rip about how “mediocre” the copy was, and how petty Sam had been.

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This guy, though!

The copy was actually very good, but that’s by the by.

Let’s be clear, then: inspiring someone with your work is great – there’s no clearer indication that you’re a thought leader in your sector than if people start trying to do what you do.

But inspiration and duplication are not the same thing: the second you copy and paste someone else’s work is the second it’s all gone horribly wrong – not just for yourself, but for a number of people (we’ll come to that).

It doesn’t matter if it’s “Only 10 lines”

I’m kind of at a loss of how to tackle this idea – it’s so ridiculous as to be laughable. It doesn’t matter if somebody’s stolen 10 lines of your work or 10 chapters – the result is the same.

If I suddenly started branding my business with three little words – I don’t know, how about, “I’m lovin’ it”? – I’d expect someone to notice and object.

But why? It’s only three words.

The power of content doesn’t come from its length – it comes from its quality. Sam’s profile content has the power to get him hired: it shows clearly, concisely and engagingly what he does, how he does it, and why he’s the man you want to hire for your project.

Mr Hot Mess saw that, and he decided he’d have a slice of that pie for his own plate.

Greedy boy.

It’s not just theft, it’s fraud

It’s fair to assume that, barring some miraculous alignment of the heavens, Mr Hot Mess does not have all the same skills and experience as Sam. So what we’re seeing here is someone who’s not only stealing content and passing it off as his own, we’re seeing someone who’s more than happy to try and hook new clients with someone else’s worm.

Businesses looking to hire someone as talented as Sam are going to get Mr Hot Mess instead – and I’ll bet my sizeable behind the results won’t be the same.

It’s an all-round bad show and it’s false advertising, which, given that Mr Hot Mess works in advertising, is pretty poor.

A cautionary tale For The Internet Age…

Are you sitting comfortably, boys and girls? Then I’ll begin.

The freelance market is a pretty competitive place, and we’re all out there doing the same thing: looking for new clients, bigger clients, better clients. And yes, when your online content is failing to hit the spot, it’s frustrating. I get that.

But instead of wowing new clients with his stolen copy and assumed skills, Mr Hot Mess has ended up…well, looking a hot mess.

He’s been outed as a man too lazy to write about the one thing he knows better than anyone – himself – and too daft or arrogant to consider he might get caught.

The update’s been shared far and wide, and it’s fair to say the internet never forgets. One quick copy and paste job has landed Mr Hot Mess in a whole load of embarrassingly hot water.

For a reasonable fee, our villain of the hour could have worked with a decent copywriter – there are plenty of LinkedIn specialists out there – to produce some unique, keyword-rich content he could’ve been proud of.

Instead, he’s saved himself a few quid and got himself a good ol’ public shaming instead. While he did show his face on the thread – to apologise for ‘offending anyone’ – Mr Hot Mess has probably already got the message that the damage is done.

What can you do if someone steals your content?

Moving on from the LinkedIn drama, then – let’s talk about you. How can you stop Hot Messes stealing your stuff?

It’s a good idea to regularly check your online content to make sure no cheeky monkeys have got their paws on it. There are plenty of online plagiarism checkers that you can use to make sure your copy’s not been duplicated – or you can use Google Alerts as a preventative measure if you’ve got a bit of time free – but what if it has?

The first step is to contact the person directly – if you can. If it’s not immediately obvious who’s nicked your work, have a look round for a contact page and an email address. A sternly worded email demanding the content be immediately removed is often enough to do the trick.

If that doesn’t work, you have options. On social media platforms like LinkedIn, you can report profiles for plagiarism – and, if you’re so inclined, name and shame as Sam did.

On the wider web, you can use sites like Who Is Hosting This? to contact web hosts directly. Hosting companies don’t want to get sued, so they’ll often remove entire websites if they find that they feature stolen content.

Finally, if you find that someone is pulling in loads of traffic using your original content, a Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) complaint against the site – while it takes a bit of time – will usually do the trick.

If Google finds that another website has stolen your content, it has the power to ban the site from its search engines, essentially rendering them completely pointless. And if the thief has been making money from your content using Google Adwords, they can be banned from their current account (bye-bye, money!) and prevented from opening another.

Summing up

So there we are! A blog post that has it all: heroes, villains, public shaming and the righteous coming out on top in the end. Plus, a content marketing mo – what more could you want?

Stealing content is such bad form for a number of reasons – firstly because it’s theft, secondly because it’s fraud and thirdly (my own personal reason) because seeing freelancers shit on other freelancers is horrible.

If you’re struggling to write content that delivers on its aims, you’ve got two choices: do some research and do it yourself, or pay a writer to help you out. Either way, expertise are needed, and fair’s fair – you’ve either got to get them, or you’ve got to pay for them.


Do you agree – or do you feel a bit sorry for Mr Hot Mess? Or have you ever had your work stolen? How did you handle it? Comment below or come and chat with me @LorrieHartshorn!

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