Lesson of the Stolen Web

Page 1 of 2

plagiarism (n) 1: a piece of writing that has been copied from someone else and is presented as being your own work 2: the act of plagiarizing; taking someone's words or ideas as if they were your own. Source: WordNet ® 1.6, © 1997 Princeton University

This is a completely true story and I have all of the documentation to prove it. A website I created was only on the web for ten days before someone stole my work and put their name on it.

I knew that sort of Internet plagiarism could happen, but what shocked me was that it happened so quickly. I learned a lot from this experience and I'm writing about it so that others can learn from it too. Although we can't make it impossible for people to plagiarize our websites, we can deal with it firmly when it happens.

Pam Tate hired me to write and design the website for Seattle Great Date, her new speed dating business. On March 23, 2002, www.seattlegreatdate.com was officially launched. Ten days later, Pam received the following e-mail, which she forwarded to me.

[Author's Note: Because Dan corrected his plagiarism, I decided to show him the courtesy of withholding his last name and his website addresses. With the exception of when I have obscured information that would identify him, all of Dan's letters appear exactly as sent and have not been modified in any way.]

----- Original Message -----
From: Dan [T.]
To: Pamela Tate
Sent: Tuesday, April 02, 2002 8:49 PM
Subject: Heads up on a project in Toronto called [FQ].

Dear Pamela

First off I want to say I am very impressed with your site http://www.seattlegreatdate.com The link was forwarded to me from a colleague in D.C

I am writing to you as a courtesy to give you a heads up what I am doing in Toronto. There are parts of some content from your site that I wish to use on my site and as a professional courtesy I am checking with you and seeking your permission.

First of let me state how I am very very different and how I should in no way affect your business.

1. My market is Toronto -a different country!

2. I am not emphasising dating I am emphasising an opportunity for single AND attached people to get involved in an evening of meeting others. You see I believe that in Toronto there is a great need for Gay men and women, who are attached, or who have open relationships to connect with others for friendship. Of course there is also the need for singles to connect as well. My site is called [FQ] and really I am using it as a part of a marketing strategy to draw prospective client to my relationship coaching services go to [GPQ].

The link to [FQ] is not yet live so the public can not see it while its under construction. I do own the domain: [FQ]

I did take the liberty of using some of the language from your site (I tried to be original but lets face speed dating, the process etc is the same for everyone) ... If you feel that I have violated any copyright laws or do not wish to grant me permission to use parts of such content then please advise me before my site goes live next week. I am coming from a place of collaboration and respect so I am certainly flexible!

I will go in and make the necessary changes to my site if necessary and where appropriate.

If we need to chat live by all means email me and we can set a time.

Ok you can now check out the temporary link. Its housed at [FQ]

Dan [T.]
CIO (Chief Innovation Officer) and Coach

The letter itself was quite reasonable. The problem was with the content on Dan's site. When I got there, I saw that all of the text on Dan's five-page site was copied and pasted from www.seattlegreatdate.com. Dan changed the company name, but that was it. To add insult to injury, Dan put his name in the copyright notice as if he had worked all those long hours to write it himself. Dan's site had different graphics and colors, but all of the text was blatantly copied and pasted from our site. 

Dan's letter did ask for permission to use the text that he copied, but I felt that his expectations were unreasonable. He referred to the "parts of such content" he was using, but our sites now read like twins of each other and that went way past the line. He implied an awareness of copyright issues, but he only put his own name in the copyright notice with no attribution to Seattle Great Date. Dan also made it sound as if he had no choice but to copy our site because our businesses were similar and threw in a deadline of wanting to go live the following week.

With all of the press coverage about how strongly Mattel protects their copyright of Barbie, why would any business owner think it might be acceptable to copy and paste the entire website of another company?

I was pretty sure that Pam forwarded the mail to me before she checked Dan's site herself, so I called her.

"Pam, have you seen what he did?"

"What? I thought you'd be flattered that he liked your writing."

"I don't give a damn about his compliments. He stole it. He copied and pasted all our hard work onto his site and put his own name on it. You have to go look." I paced my apartment while I ranted.

Pam was getting worked up now. "You're kidding me. He can't do that! How can he do that? Isn't that stealing?" 

"Well, yeah. It's plagiarism. What's shocking is that his letter makes it sound like he just used bits and pieces, but every page on his site is a twin of ours. We have to nip this in the bud."

Pam and I talked and vented a while longer and eventually decided that I would write a letter to Dan. Pam outlined the basics of what she wanted me to say and I went right to work on it. Pam wanted to give Dan several workable options, such as giving us credit for our work or hiring me to write new text. My schedule was a bit full for a new client that month, but I went ahead and included what she suggested.

One thing kept bothering me as I prepared the letter. Dan claimed he heard about us from a colleague in D.C., but our website was too new to be listed on any search engines and we didn't know anyone in that area. I ran a Google search on Dan's name and discovered that he was collaborating on several other projects with a speed dating competitor of ours in Seattle named Barry. Barry and Dan were both life coaches who had branched into the speed dating business. Knowing that Dan worked closely with one of our local competitors made Pam and I nervous, but we decided not to mention it yet.

While I wrote the letter, Pam checked out Dan's site for herself. This was the letter I sent Dan:

-----Original Message-----
From: Tricia Spicer
Sent: Wednesday, April 03, 2002 12:57 PM
To: Dan [T.]
Cc: Pam Tate
Subject: FW: Heads up on a project in Toronto called [FQ].

Dear Dan,

My name is Tricia Spicer. Pam Tate hired me to write and design www.seattlegreatdate.com. Pam forwarded your note to me and has authorized me to participate in the discussion of how to handle this matter. The final decisions for Seattle Great Date are still hers, but she has approved my participation in talking with you about my writing.

I am a professional writer and editor with over 12 years of experience in my field. While I am flattered that you enjoyed the text I wrote for Pam, the way you are using my work goes beyond borrowing and clearly crosses the line into plagiarism. If you truly want to collaborate with us and show respect for our work and our copyright, we need to do this a little differently.

Pam and I invested a significant amount of time and money into creating unique text for her site. We could have "borrowed" the work of other speed dating services for free, but I take a huge amount of pride in my profession, and I know better. We feel that you have built your site directly from our hard work and put your name on it. I am deeply offended that you have so blatantly put your name on what I have written.

The way I see it, you have 3 options:

1. Add the following copyright notice on every page of your site (not just the home page):

Copyright 2001 Dan [T.] ®. All Rights Reserved. Text courtesy of Tricia Spicer and Seattle Great Date.

Please note that under this option, "Tricia Spicer" would link to www.trisheyelens.com and "Seattle Great Date" would link to www.seattlegreatdate.com. This would at least acknowledge that you are benefiting from our work and are properly respectful of the privilege. If you want to go live next week, this is probably your best option.

2. Write your own text or "borrow" from someone other than us. There are many other speed dating sites out there that manage to do business without stealing our copy.

3. Hire me to write unique text for you. I work very fast and will happily quote you a fair rate.

The fact that you have a similar business is not the issue here. There are many speed dating services and we accept that. The problem is that you have completely plagiarized our website. As speed dating becomes increasingly common, the main thing that will distinguish one speed dating site from another is the quality of its website, a major component of which is the quality of its writing. If you truly want to work in cooperation with us, don't ever put your name on my writing. I could easily write unique text for a dozen speed dating sites without plagiarizing any of them. I do not accept that you "had" to plagiarize our site because all speed dating sites are the same. Copyright means something to a professional writer, I do not take it lightly.

If you are willing to accept one of the three options listed above, we can all have a much friendlier working relationship. Pamela may also want to exchange links with you in another part of your site, I leave that decision to her. I assume this was just an oversight on your part and that we can work things out in a way that's beneficial to all.

Tricia Spicer
Webmaster, Seattle Great Date

It's a stern letter, but we thought it was called for. Putting your name on someone else's writing is plagiarism and that is widely considered to be the same as stealing. Dan's original letter minimized the impact of what he had done and we wanted to make our stand on the issue clear.

Continued on Page 2 >>