For a number of reasons the internet is a wonderful tool for the use of artists of every kind. It allows us to network with our peers and our fans, to take the reins on our own marketing and distribution, to do various kinds of research, and a world of other useful things. It makes our lives and platforms easier to handle and, if we so choose, allows us to share ourselves and our work with the world on a scale of our own choosing.
But there are also pitfalls. One such pitfall that never ceases to destroy my trust in people is plagiarism.
Plagiarism is something I never honestly thought that I would have to worry about. When I was still in school the only kind of plagiarism you ever heard about was kids copying each others’ work or copying entire sections of their essays out of library books. Even as I moved on to the college world the most you really came across was when truly stupid students would copy sections of Wikipedia pages without realizing that Wikipedia is created by volunteer input and is therefore not necessarily correct in any way, shape, or form.
These days, however, I can give you a list of pieces that I have seen plagiarized on the internet. I have several artist friends who have found their drawings/paintings/etc posted on other peoples’ websites with no credit given to the original creator. I know a number of writers who only found out through the help of their readers that other people were snatching their work from sites like FanFiction.net and FictionPress.com and posting it on their own websites with their own names attached. I even know a few people who write for professional websites who have found their articles copy-and-pasted onto other people’s sites with the impression that it belonged to the thief. And just recently my father, who loves photography and regularly posts his photos on Facebook, was informed by a friend that other photographers were ganking his pictures and claiming them as their own. In most of these cases the original creators had no intention of making money from their work, which is why they were sharing it freely, but that does not give other people the right to steal that work and turn around and use it for their own purpose.
Some people may say that if the thief isn’t making any money off the stolen work, then what should it matter? And I’m here to tell you that it matters a lot. For one thing, if two people are claiming ownership of the same work, how do the fans know who to trust? If, for instance, someone stole one of my stories and posted it on their own site, how many readers might read it on that site first, and therefore assume that I am the thief? Now my name has been besmirched even though I am the victim. For another thing, you have to think about things like exposure and building a portfolio. Take my father for this example. He currently has no intentions of making any money from his hobby, but someday he might, and all the photos that he’s been taking and sharing with the world will be part of his portfolio. But if other people have been taking his photos and claiming them as their own, they will have been spending all this time building up their own portfolios with those stolen photos. They’ve been gaining all the ill-gotten exposure while my father has been simply enjoying his hobby, and if his intentions do change, he’ll be basically starting over from scratch because he’ll have no way to prove that those photos were truly his all along.
There are certain things that an artist can do to protect their work, such as watermarking photos and emailing manuscripts to yourself (so that the email server has a time stamp of how long that particular file has been in your possession), but action rarely stops plagiarizers. The internet is an enormous virtual Universe that is unfortunately filled with quite a large number of jerks, and in the many examples of plagiarism that I’ve seen, the only reason the victims even found out about their work being stolen was because fans found out and informed them of the outrage.
So with that said, I offer a suggestion to the masses: keep an eye out for one another. To my knowledge no work of mine has ever been plagiarized, but for all I know there could be a dozen other blogs out there posting my Final Fantasy novelization and claiming it as their own, and I would definitely want to be informed if someone happened to wander across such a thievery. I’m sure any one of you would want the same. So keep your eyes open, friends and fellow artists. We are a community and we have to have each others’ backs on this one. Don’t let the thieves win!