What Writers Can Do About Informal Plagiarism, Part 1

I spoke with another writer, Sam, earlier this week. He’s pretty sure a colleague, John, is plagiarizing his blog posts. Not in writing, but in conversation.

Yes, John is using Sam's original words and phrases and passing those words off as John's ideas. In videos, podcasts, all kinds of “thought leader” work.

This happens. All too often. For some reason, some people feel that if the work is online, they don't have to credit the original writer for the ideas.

Plagiarism occurs all the time.

My Stories About Plagiarism

I have two funny stories about when plagiarism happened to me. The first occurred at a conference, using an article I wrote. The second was in a conversation, using my site and newsletter.

Plagiarism in Writing

Soon after I published Manage Your Project Portfolio, I wrote an article, Project Portfolio Decisions–Decisions For Now. That article has an image that shows how the work flows through the portfolio.

I went to a conference and saw someone was speaking about the project portfolio. Excellent. Maybe I could learn something.

This guy, from a famous agile consultancy, not only used my article. Not only did he use the image from the article that referenced the book, he didn't acknowledge my work at all.

He plagiarized my work, from start to finish.

Yes, I spoke with him afterward. We discussed permission and what fair use was. I said, “If you credit my work—both the article and the book—you can keep using these slides.”

He said, “I don't have the book.”

I said, “Buy a copy. Or, have your manager buy it for you if you can't afford it.”

Remember, this was the premier agile consultancy at the time. They could afford it. He could afford it. This was not about the money.

I didn't think that story was funny at the time. In retrospect, I sigh about it.

Plagiarism at Dinner

A few years ago, I was in Europe at a conference. At the speaker's dinner, I sat across the table from someone who said he focused on the problems of the portfolio and management in agile transformations.

I said, “Great, me too.”

He said, “I have these unique ideas I'm sure you've never seen or heard of.”

“Oh?” I was quite interested.

“I've been explaining to my clients that they don't have to plan the entire feature set at a time. They can decide how little they can do for now,” he said

(Yes, I linked to the very first post I wrote about how little.) (I first wrote about feature sets in Manage It! and I'm sure somewhere on this site before 2005.)

I said, “Interesting that you use those terms: how little and feature sets. I don't know too many other people that do. Where did you see them?” I thought he might have a reference I could use.

He blushed a little. “I got them from some woman in the US.” That's when he glanced at my name tag. “Oh! You! I got them from you!”

I smiled. Good that he knew.

What can writers do? Do we lie down like dogs on a sunny day and ignore it? No. We have choices. First, keep writing on your topics.

Develop Your List of Topics

When I teach writing, I recommend writers have two “lists” of ideas:

  • The idea bank, the topics you might want to write about, at some time.
  • The fieldstones, the one word to several phrases to whole paragraphs, of words you might use.

(Yes, I use Weinberg's Fieldstone Method. It's worked for me for many years. I love it.)

I integrate my ideas and fieldstones into one list. You might choose to separate your ideas and fieldstones into two separate lists. Some of my writer friends use a database. Others use paper in the form of a notebook or index cards.

I use the Notes app on my Mac/iPad/iPhone. That way, I always have access to all of them.

Do whatever works for you.

The big thing is to develop a list of topics so you can write at (almost) any time.

When you realize someone has plagiarized you, write more.

Why Write More?

When you write more on your favorite topics—especially when you realize someone has plagiarized you—you become the authority.

You get more SEO. People will find you. Especially if you put your personal spin on a given topic.

Here are three four possibilities for how to gain more content marketing for your plagiarized words:

  1. Write more about that specific topic. Make sure you put your unique ideas on that topic.
  2. Write pros and cons about that specific topic. (I have not yet written a piece about why you should not manage the project portfolio, but now I have that idea!)
  3. Write about times when your ideas won't work. (Brian Marick told me that back in the 90s, I think.)
  4. Write a series about this topic, going into even more depth. I recommend a minimum of three posts. Seven is better because then you can collect them into a short book.

Don't be afraid to take a contrary position with your topic. You might surprise you and your readers with your conclusions.

Ask yourself this question: What do I need to do to make this content mine? As a writer, your job is to create content that people associate with you.

When you put your unique spin on a topic, people associate those words and ideas with you.

Okay, that's what you can do to build your content marketing. In addition, ask people to acknowledge your work.

Ask People to Acknowledge Your Work

After Mark Kilby and I published From Chaos to Successful Distributed Agile Teams, we paid attention to people discussing distributed agile teams.

We heard about a terrific presentation from someone. We looked at his slides.

He'd scraped our images and many of our words from our book. He didn't acknowledge us.

That's not fair use (I'll talk more about that in Part 2).

I was pretty sure he didn't realize what he'd done. We contacted him by email and explained fair use. He told us he loved our book and found it quite useful.

We were thrilled. We asked him to acknowledge us in several ways, at the start, during, and end of the presentation.

He didn't mean to steal our work. However, when people don't acknowledge your work, it's a form of stealing.

Some people just steal. I'm not going to discuss them because it's not worth the time.

What Should Writers Do?

Is it worth Sam's time to confront John about John's plagiarism? Since Sam didn't publish this work in a book (yet), I don't think it's worth the time or aggravation to confront John.

If John had scraped images? Yes, that's worth it. That's because when you make your own images you have more “proof” of stealing. But words?

We each have our own writing voice. I'm pretty sure you can tell it's me when I write. Even with a strong voice, I decide when it's worth my time to confront someone and when it's not. I most often decide it's not worth my time.

To be honest, I want people to search for those phrases and find me. (Insert evil cackle here.) That's why I tend to write more.

Every so often, I discover people have scraped content from my blog. I ask them to take down the offending post(s). Sometimes, I succeed.

I focus on writing more so my content marketing overwhelms their stealing. I'm not going to go crazy over informal plagiarism, even if bugs me. I'd rather write more.

You might ask why I'm posting this here. First, I write as part of my product development. Second, some of my clients also use content marketing to promote their products and services. Third, I'm planning a series of writing books. I know, you're so surprised. (Not!)

I think this is a three-part series:

  • What Writers Can Do About Informal Plagiarism, Part 1
  • How to Use Other People's Words and Not Plagiarize, Part 2
  • What Writers Can Do About Intended Plagiarism, Part 3

I'll know more as I write.

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