How can bloggers protect themselves from content thieves?

Verizon recently scraped this blogger’s content without asking for permission or providing attribution — and then failed to make things right. Is there anything bloggers can do?

Imagine this situation:

Your boss asks you to create a new marketing plan for your company. You go to a competitor’s site and like what you see. So, you copy the competitor’s original content (even the illustrations), and claim it as your own marketing material.

If I did something like this in the business world, I would probably get fired. Yet on the Internet this is a common and accepted practice. If you are a blogger, expect to be copied, cheated and ransacked. Expect to be treated like a piece of meat.

For example:

  • An advertising firm in Chicago recently used one of my blog posts without permission or attribution in its monthly marketing newsletter to customers as its own original material.
  • At least three companies have digitally scanned my books and are selling them on websites for their own profit.
  • Last year an author used an original case study from my blog, {grow}, in his new book without attribution or permission. Another very famous business author lifted whole sections from my book, “Return on Influence,” for his book without any permission, attribution or credit. A third book used my original ideas, without credit, about citizen influencers and social scoring.
  • The talented Pam Moore recently wrote this Facebook post: “Just when you think you have seen it all when it comes to plagiarism & copyright violation … I just found a guy who has been purposely copying my blog posts into video. He reads the entire blog post and uses it as content for his own (promotional) video. He reads and records every word and claims it as his own! One of the videos has 10,000 views!”

The Verizon tipping point

These examples involve small-time players brashly using bloggers’ content for commercial gain — but even Fortune 500 companies do it.

I pay writers like Kerry Gorgone to create original material for {grow}. She and I were shocked to find that one of her posts was swiped — in its entirety without reference to her or {grow} — and posted on Verizon’s company portal as if it was Verizon’s post.

One of the world’s largest companies boldly took copyrighted content from an individual blogger and used it on its own promotional site. It was pure luck we even found it.

I tried to get a response from Verizon, as I was curious as to how and why the company did this.

It took three months to even be acknowledged. I wrote to customer service twice, called them twice, sent messages through Twitter and Facebook twice, wrote to the corporate vice president of communications twice, and then finally called him. A member of his staff said she would get back to me in 24 hours. I never heard another word from her.

I was stonewalled for three months. Nobody at any level in any department responded to me.

About a month ago, someone from Verizon customer service was in one of my classes. I mentioned the issue to her, and somebody called me within a few days. She was kind and apologetic, but after all the time I had put into getting a response, I wanted more than an apology. I wanted Verizon to reimburse me for the money I paid Kerry for her content that they swiped. The customer service representative said she would have to get approval for that.

Finally the person who manages Verizon’s website called me. The conversation went like this:

Verizon: “I have been informed about all the issues you have had trying to get through to us, and we are truly sorry this happened. We hired a company to scrape content from the Web and publish it on our site. We have told them about the problem and they want to send you a gift certificate for your trouble.”

Me: “Why is Verizon scraping content like this in the first place? What value does it provide to your customers? You aren’t even aware of what you are publishing.”

Verizon: “Our competitors do it, so we do it. We want to provide customers with a portal where they can get news and entertainment.”

Me: “So customers are logging into the Verizon site to get their news? Probably not. Your company is blindly scraping content from the Internet without acknowledging or compensating the authors. I don’t know how that is ethical or serving your customers in any way. The blog post you took from me didn’t even have anything to do with news or entertainment. Did you see the post?”

Verizon: “It was about social media or something.”

Me: “It was about hiring companies to fake tweet for you. How is scraping random content part of a customer strategy?

Verizon: “I’m not going to debate our strategy.”

Me: “But what you did was illegal.”

Verizon: “It was not illegal.”

Me: “I have a position written by an attorney if you would like to see it.”

Verizon: (silence) “Where can I mail your gift certificate?

I never did get the gift certificate.

Have you had enough?

If you are a regular reader of {grow}, you know I do not take pot shots at people or companies. I focus on issues, not individuals, because my goal is to educate with a positive attitude that helps and inspires people.

But this latest episode with Verizon, where the company ignored my honest inquiry for three months, serves as a tipping point for me.

I’m tired of being treated like a piece of meat, like I owe people something just because I have a blog with an active readership, or like my content is free to use at will for private commercial purposes.

Bloggers are the latest in a long line of abused professional workers. Is there anything that can change this, or will the double-edged sword of free Internet content always jab us?

Maybe it’s time for a professional association or watch-dog group to stand up for the rights of content creators, because this abuse is just not right. If you’re interested in this and have the ability to make it happen, I will be your first investor.

Mark Schaefer is the author of “Return On Influence” and blogs at {grow}, where this article originally appeared.

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