So there’s a blog out there called Oh No They Didn’t, also known as ONTD, famous for being the largest community on LiveJournal (which is apparently still a thing; who knew?) and for having a metric crap-ton of contributors providing celebrity gossip, reactions to TV shows, and notes on other pop culture filler. And it’s all stolen. Every single word.
But let’s back up. Last Wednesday, I posted this article about a character in ParaNorman. On Friday, my wife, a member and regular reader of the ONTD community, told me, “hey! They mentioned your article on Oh No They Didn’t!” Which I thought was neat, until I actually saw their post*, which was, in its entirety, a cut/paste of my article, minus the italics but with links intact. The only words in the post not lifted from my article was a tag at the end reading “hummus / made me love the movie even more tbh.” The word “hummus” served as a hotlink back to my original article, although it took me a moment to figure that out.
That one-word hotlink is important, you see, for it’s the thing that makes the owners, moderators, and contributors of ONTD pretend they’re not plagiarizing. But guess what? They are. They totally, totally are.
But again, I get ahead of myself. My original reaction – which is the same reaction every writer has upon seeing his/her words stolen – is to shout “hey, that’s plagiarism!” as loudly as possible. I was in the middle of writing a comment on the post saying something to the effect of “hey, that one-word link at the bottom doesn’t count as proper attribution, and the entire post is set up to make the reader assume the blog contributor is the author, which is plagiarism, duh” when my wife intervened. The contributor didn’t mean any harm, she said. The contributor was only following the rules of the community and posting the way everybody posts, she said. Doesn’t matter, I said. It’s still theft, I said.
Around and around we went until she convinced me to take my complaint behind the scenes by contacting a moderator, which we did. I asked for the article to be re-edited to remove the bulk of my text (essentially changing it from unauthorized reproduction – in full! – of copyrighted material to an excerpt allowable under fair use guidelines) and corrected with a link to the original article, plus the addition of any sort of wording that would clear up confusion over authorship. This didn’t even have to be in the form of my name or website being mentioned; a simple “hey, here’s an article I found you might want to read, and here’s some of what it had to say” would suffice, because there’s no way you could read that and not know which words were written by which person.
A little while later, the post was indeed edited, but only barely. Still remaining was my entire article, but with it now amended to include the following at the very bottom of the post:
Credit goes to Dave Cornelius at Popcocornworld for writing this! Just thought it was an awesome writeup and wanted to post it here :)
Which wasn’t what I asked for, but I’ll give the contributor credit – hasty typos aside, it became obvious he/she was not intending to steal credit and was legitimately intending to share my article with the ONTD community but just did it the wrong way. Which is why, for all that follows, I hold no grudge toward the contributor himself/herself.
You see, that’s when I noticed something else. The contributor’s cut/paste job wasn’t abnormal for ONTD. It was the standard.
Take a look at their site. You’ll notice every post – every single one of them – is copied and pasted from somewhere else. Some posts steal from multiple websites, creating a Frankstein’s monster of gossip, but for the most part, their M.O. is to take an entire text from somewhere else, add a couple pics, change the headline, and call it an update. (This explains their slogan: “The gossip is priceless.” That’s because they didn’t pay for it!) So ingrained into this community is this method of thievery, their “rules” page gives you a rundown on the proper format.
See, the folks at ONTD seem to assume that including a one-word source link at the bottom of the post clears them of any wrongdoing. This is both wrong and remarkably stupid. My best guess is they’re trying to emulate the style used at professional news blogs, which often end a news post with a link to their source. Take, for example, this piece from Movieline.com’s Jen Yamato, which discusses rumors of a possible Rocketeer reboot. You’ll notice the post ends with a link to another article at another website, Vulture.com, where the news originated. You’ll also notice, however, Yamato didn’t simply copy the Vulture article – she wrote her own article, from her own perspective, and clearly cited Vulture as a source not only at the post’s end, but within the article as well. Similarly, this Movieline report, from Brian Brooks, includes quotes from the BBC article which served as its source, and those quotes are clearly defined, so we, the readers, can immediately tell who wrote what.
Meanwhile, over on ONTD, you’ll find articles like this, which includes its own headline next to the avatar and user name of the community member posting the article, followed by text and pictures presented in a manner that suggests the community member is the author of the text. Only by clicking the “1” at the bottom of the post do you discover the entire thing is a copy of this brief post from Radar Online.
But Dave! you say. Community members understand that the person posting did not write the article! That’s fine, but you shouldn’t have to be a lifelong member of a group to know what’s being posted by somebody in the group is actually stolen material. It should be clear to everyone visiting the site, not just a handful of regulars. Anything less is designed to give the appearance of false ownership.
But Dave! The source link at the bottom is enough to clarify ownership! By including that link, they’re upfront about the source of the material! This isn’t plagiarism! Again, no. It’s hardly “upfront” to bury a source at the bottom of a post that’s listed under someone else’s byline. Obscuring authorship is equally shady.
But Dave! At least your work is being seen by others, and that’s what you want, right? Not if it’s being stolen. I don’t care if people learn my name or remember what my blog is called, but I do care if they encounter my work honestly. And while in my case, all that’s lost is intellectual property, what about others who make their living writing online? These people’s incomes are dependent on page views on their own sites, which isn’t helped when you steer readers to a copy you’ve posted on your own site.
But Dave! Other aggregator sites do the same thing! Yes, and that’s why most writers and content creators hate them.
But Dave! Those posts present their sources, and everything else falls under fair use! Seriously, no. An excerpt falls under fair use. Reprinting an entire text is outside the limits of fair use and is considered copyright infringement. Which, in the eyes of the law, is actually worse than plagiarism, so I’m not sure that’s the best counterargument.
In other words, at best, what they’re doing is unethical, and at worst, it’s illegal.
(I’ve also heard, as an argument, that ONTD members won’t bother to click links and read articles elsewhere, so only posting excerpts would be a waste of time. This is not in any way a plausible excuse. “Our readership is too lazy to open a new tab in their browser” is equally hilarious and sad. Tell your readers to grow up.)
The saddest part in all of this is that the person who originally stole my article literally didn’t know any better. He/she is part of a community that repeatedly tells its members that plagiarism and copyright violations are perfectly acceptable provided they use this one trick they totally just made up in hopes of covering their butts. So to anyone reading this raised on ONTD’s excuses, listen up: No, everything on the internet is not free. Plagiarism in any form is not acceptable. If you want to share something you found online, that’s great! We’re pleased you like it! But stealing it is not the way to go. Learn how to write your own posts with your own words, the way responsible people do it, even if it’s a clumsily worded post that says little more than “hey, read this.” No, you’re not expected to be held to the same standards as professional journalists, but you are expected to be held to the same standards as decent human beings.
So what’s a writer to do when he/she has been completely, utterly, and shamelessly ripped off? Deal with ONTD itself? That’s a start, but it’s a slow one, filled with dodgy results. My own experience is this: I’ve emailed the owner of the site three times, requesting my text be replaced with a notice saying it was removed due to copyright violation. I have yet to receive a reply.
Luckily, I was able to file a complaint with LiveJournal, and while the results mean ONTD can effectively dodge admitting their wrongdoing forever, at least it’s something. Unfortunately, LiveJournal’s policy requires the actual copyright holder make the request, meaning every person from whom ONTD plagiarized must personally go through the long process of registering a complaint, meaning ONTD will keep getting away with their crimes provided their victims are slow to find out about them.
I’ve heard from other writers who’ve had the same issue, and their results are the same: ONTD deletes the post, then pretends there was never a problem. Consider this case, in which a writer struggled to get the management of ONTD to admit any wrongdoing on their site, only to have management laugh in her face – followed by ONTD members trolling her blog with a parade of ignorant comments. Which is to say, the ONTD community will steal what they want, then yell at you if you complain about it.
A side note: My original complaint included the placement of advertisements on ONTD, meaning somebody’s getting cash money for every article the blog steals. However, I’ve since learned that the ads are from LiveJournal and not ONTD. It’s part of LiveJournal’s set-up, not ONTD’s; the ads are only visible to readers who are not paid LiveJournal members (who, after logging in, do not see the ads). Anyone money made off of ONTD’s theft, it seems, is purely coincidental.
*(While I was writing this post, LiveJournal acted on my copyright complaint and has taken the post offline. It’s a start! For reference, here’s a screengrab of the article before it was removed, but after my name was added to it. To keep the image size reasonable, I only copied the post itself and not the ONTD comment section.)