Beware of drive-by guest bloggers offering to write free articles for your website. You may say, “But I’m not a writer. I can’t turn down free content!” You know that you need fresh content to attract buyers, and guest posts seem like an answer to all your prayers. Free? Even better. But when a writer appears out of nowhere, offers to write you unique posts – exclusively yours – in exchange for a backlink or two; remember that “there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.” Your rich, overseas fourth cousin, seven times removed, did not just die and leave you a database overflowing with free PANDA food.
This is not meant to be a dry, boring lesson on copyright law and the evils of plagiarism. Rather, it is a cautionary tale for bloggers. It helps to understand a little bit about U.S. copyright law, so bear with me. And before you think, “Whew! That doesn’t apply to me, since I’m not IN the U.S.,” remember that most of the popular web hosting companies are subject to U.S. law, and consider this information on International Copyright.
Ideas Cannot Be Copyrighted – Thank Goodness!
Did you know that an idea cannot be copyrighted? If they could, there might only be one poorly written blog post about the importance of commenting on others’ blogs. In fact, there might be only one blog devoted to “blogging tips”! There goes your chance to dominate the blogging tips niche. So sharing is good – in the world of ideas.
Building upon others’ works is also good – especially in non-fiction. You can quote a snippet from another work – properly citing it, of course – and add to the discussion with your own ideas, commentary, and critique. No need to reinvent the wheel.
In principle, it’s okay to use small excerpts of other works for one of three purposes: education (though maybe not in in a training module sold for a profit!); parody (think Saturday Night Live); or review and critique (otherwise there would be no book, movie, or video game reviews allowed – and that would make their creators very sad). This is what’s meant by “fair use” – the tricky thing here is figuring out just how much of the original work you can use before being accused of a copyright violation. “Fair use” is a defense, not an absolute right.
“Plagiarism” is a low-life form of “copyright violation” in which one not only uses someone else’s work, but lies and claims he created it. Even if you properly credit the original author of the work, you’ve violated copyright if you’ve used too much of it without permission. “Too much” might be interpreted as “any more than you absolutely need in order to make your point.” Scraping a whole blog post is obviously too much. Copying an excerpt – arguably designed to be shared as part of “how the Internet works” is not a copyright violation if you cite the source.
Paraphrasing & Derivative Works
But what about paraphrasing? That’s okay, surely – you’re taking the same ideas, but using different words.
Then what about changing words? That’s acceptable, certainly – you can be using the same ideas, but writing synonyms.
Does that second sentence earn points for originality? That’s a “derivative work,” based on the first, and not even an interesting one. It does nothing to add to or change the original sentence. That’s what article spinner software and “PLR content” wants to sell you – the notion that by running words through the electronic equivalent of a salad spinner equipped with a thesaurus to produce something “unique,” your post or article is original and not a copyright violation.
It’s a lie, at least under U.S. law. Because copyright protects “derivative works” and gives the copyright owner the sole right to create them.
A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications, which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.
What does an article spinner do? It goes out and grabs a bunch of text based on keywords in preexisting works? It lifts passages and “spins” them, arguably creating something different. In reality, there are usually recognizable chunks that would allow a halfway diligent researcher to trace them to their origins (or at least to numerous other “spun” copies). If you did this to your own original articles, it would be lazy, at worst – but you’d have the right to do it. That’s why article spinners aren’t, in and of themselves, illegal. You can take all your own old blog posts and recycle them into yummy PANDA food. But doing it to others’ content actually can lead to a copyright nightmare – instead of one blogger coming after you with a DMCA notice, you might have ten irate bloggers all clamoring to have your site taken down.
Note: The following examples are based on actual guest post offers. Copied content is used here for educational purposes – to warn bloggers of the sorts of things to look for. Names have been removed, because I’ve been unable to ascertain the identity of, or contact, the original author of the content, and so have attributed it to “A. Guest Writer” – a fictitious name.
The Offer: Too Good to Be True and How Can I Tell?
If your inbox is full of guest post offers from random strangers, ask yourself, “What’s in it for the writer?” Odds are, someone else is paying them to place spammy backlinks anywhere, any way, that they can. And this is pretty effective for them. For example, I get what looks like a great offer in email:
I would like to write an article for your website and in return I would like to have two link backs to my website. Let me know how we can proceed.
A. Guest Writer
My first thoughts go something like this:
- Wow, just two backlinks – and someone’s going to write me a post for free? Cool. Nice break for me!
- Wait a second! He hasn’t mentioned me or my website by name – I’ll bet he says this to all the bloggers!
- Maybe it’s petty of me, but “regards” should be capitalized and followed by a comma.
Still, I know that it’s important for bloggers to exchange backlinks. I was being a little petty about the capitalization, and maybe this guy was in a hurry. Maybe English isn’t his native language. Maybe he’s a kid. I write back, “Sounds good. What do you have in mind for the article? If it’s appropriate for my blog, I’ll be happy to consider it.” I commit to nothing.
Along comes the article, and right away, I spot red flags in the author’s bio block:
A. Guest Writer loves blogging on different subjects and he is a regular writer at Webhostingdeals.org. He has written articles on the topic of host alligator
Seriously? Host alligator? (The link, in this case, went to a page of Host Gator reviews, as expected. Just for giggles, I did a search for “host alligator.” Frankly, the notion of what might be covered in an alligator hunting seminar hosted by the Department of Natural Resources sounds like a far more interesting blog post.) After I stop laughing, I fire up Google.
So How Do You Spot the Fakes?
Host alligator is an immediate red flag. Nobody uses a thesaurus to mangle the keywords they want to promote; no sane writer mangles their own bio block. That tells me that no brain power was employed here. If the individual did not care enough to make sure his own bio block looked professional, I begin to wonder if he exists at all.
A simple Google search on A. Guest Writer’s email address reveals…nothing. The name used was fairly common; several different people showed up in search, but none of them wrote like this person. If someone is a “regular writer” anywhere, odds are, a search of their name or email address will turn up other articles, other social media accounts, and maybe a blog of their own. Real writers usually have a portfolio of work to show off.
Guest Post Sleuthing Tip #1 – Do a quick search on the writer’s name and email address. Ask for, and verify, previous publishing credits.
Next, I scan the text for unique phrasing – idiomatic expressions that make sense, and could not be easily switched out by an article spinner. I choose “wind out of the sails of criticism.” I use Google search to search for exactly that phrase, in quotes. It’s fairly common, though not all instances are relevant. I only care if the basic idea, structure, and expression are so similar it could be a copyright violation. I find articles on dealing with workplace criticism, criticism in a hospital setting, criticism in general – from a psychologist… But what’s this? I find an article from last September on this very same topic – dealing with negative feedback on your blog! Now, you be the judge:
Older post – heading structure:
Identify the Issue
Humanize Your Responses
Get Your Customers Involved
Think Twice Before You Delete
Guest post – heading structure:
Prompt and Proactive
Get Them Involved
And, in the body, right below that last heading, “… So, next time you feel tempted to delete a particular comment, you should think twice.”
A similar “wind out of the sails of criticism” passage is contained in each post. In each, the passage appears in the “Humanize” section. And yet, it passes several plagiarism checkers. It’s unique, if not “original.” The fact that I found recognizable structure, nearly identical advice on the same topic, and some similar (fairly unique) phrases in parallel sections argues that it is derivative, and there is no credit given to the older post.
Guest Post Sleuthing Tip #2 – Search for idiomatic phrases, clichés, striking metaphors. Look for similarities in structure. Consider whether differences are due to the use of synonyms and obvious paraphrasing.
Guest Post Sleuthing Tip #3 – Look for obvious, weird synonym substitutions. What would be the more natural way to say the same thing? Perform a quick Google search on that, and compare results in context.
Guest Post Sleuthing Tip #4 – Run the whole thing through http://www.grammarly.com/ – not only will it check for plagiarism, it will offer suggestions on grammar, punctuation, and style. You can use it on your own work, too – it’s free.
Unfortunately, given the prevalence of “spun” and PLR (private label rights) content, it would be hard for anyone but the copyright owner of the original work to swear to its origins. The odds of getting caught in a copyright violation or having your site taken down over something like this are low. But you know how it feels to work hard and be really proud of a blog post you’ve created, and you know how it feels when someone else steals your work. I hope that you will at least “consider the source” and not be too quick to publish those “free” guest posts – either because you are desperate for fresh blog content, tired of writing your own, or kind-hearted enough to want to help a fellow blogger. Make sure that you know the writer or check their references carefully.
I must thank Abhi Balani of OddBlogger.com for sharing some of his recent blogging tips and experiences with me; they provided some inspiration for this post. Many of us have similar stories. It’s unfortunate that we must be wary of others when our impulse is to say, “Hey, sure, thanks!” But better safe than sorry.