Tuesday, May 7, 2019

The Cut and Paste Thief and What To Do If You've Been Plagiarized

As Maryann Miller detailed in her March post, recently a hack named Cristiane Serruya came up with what she thought was a clever scheme. She trimmed paragraphs from multiple books, quilted them together, then published them as her own work. She changed the titles, character names, and a word here or there. The results were a bit like Frankenstein's monster, but she got away with it, for a while.

A fan of romance writer Courtney Milan's books noticed something odd when reading Ms. Serruya's book. The passages seemed a little too familiar to Milan's The Duchess War. She put the pieces together and sent an email to Ms. Milan. When contacted, the thief at first denied then deflected, blaming "ghostwriters" she hired for the crime. The battle went viral on Twitter with the hashtag #CopyPasteCris.

Once the scam was revealed, a deeper dive showed Ms. Serruya had stolen from over forty authors, including Romance legend Nora Roberts. The affected authors might not have had the resources to go after the plagiarist, but you don't mess with Nora:  “So this plagiarist lifted lines, bits, chunks big and small, from a slew of authors and books, mashed them together then hired ghosts off a cheap labor site to cobble them into a book,” Roberts wrote. “I do not, never have, never will comprehend how someone can feel any pride claiming a book they didn’t write.” The collective rage of the Romance community forced the thief into hiding and Ms. Roberts released the legal Kraken.

While it is impossible to prevent a determined thief from cloning your work, there are a few things you can do. You have the burden of proof. Get it before you alert the thief that you are on to them.

1. According to http://www.plagiarism.org/, you should not run your writing through an unverified plagiarism detection service. Some of them are warehouses for thieves. Due diligence is needed in locating a valid plagiarism search service.

You can copy and paste paragraphs of your work into a search engine such as Google. It doesn't hurt to search for your title, some thieves are too stupid to change it. Your character names, fictional locations, and worldbuilding specifics are also good search terms.

Google Books has a plagiarism search tool: http://plagiarisma.net/books.php

Set up Google Alerts to email you whenever your name, title, phrases, etc. appear online. Avoid generic terms or your inbox will be flooded with useless notifications.

2. Registering your copyright is essential if the matter turns to litigation. While your work is deemed your intellectual property the minute you create it, mailing it to yourself won't hold up in court. You must submit a completed application form and a nonreturnable copy or copies of the work to be registered and pay the fee. You can register and pay online, but must submit a hard copy of your work. Go to https://www.copyright.gov/help/faq/faq-register.html.

3. Keep track of where and when you submitted your work to an editor, agent, contest, anthology, website publishing forum, etc. Screenplays have been crafted from unpublished books. Print out, grab screen shots, or photograph emails, letters, responses, texts, and notes about telephone calls (if not recordings). You need dates, places, people, documents submitted etc.

4. If your published (traditional or independent) book has been plagiarized, document the theft with printouts, screenshots, URLS (web addresses), covers, the thief's public profiles, where they are selling and promoting their work, and comparisons of text. Document their publisher if they have one. If you self-published, document information from your upload platforms such as Amazon, Nook Press, Smashwords, etc. You should take screenshots of date of upload and proof you've been earning royalties for it.

5. If the plagiarist is selling from their own site, or a pirating site, do a "WhoIs" search to find out who owns the domain. Chances are they have more than one site and pen name. Search Amazon for their profile page and list of titles. Then save a copy of their photo and do an image search. They may use the same or similar photo for the different identities. If they have a Facebook or other social media account, check out their photos. They might list or accidentally leave clues as to alternative identities. Check out their friends list too. Document what you find.

6. Contact the domain owners, publishers, etc. Notify them of the plagiarism, with proof, and a cease and desist letter with specifics as to what you wish them to do such as remove content, remove from sale, public apology, links to your work etc. You maintain the right to sue even if they comply. Send it by certified mail signature required. Only contact the plagiarist if they are self-publishing your work from their own website and after you have reported them. Gather evidence before they have a chance to take it down.

7. Report them to Amazon, Smashwords, Barns & Noble, etc.

They all have some version of a copyright infringement policy: "If you believe in good faith that materials hosted by us infringes your copyrights, you may send us a notice requesting that the material be removed or access to it blocked. The notice must include the following information: (i) a physical or electronic signature of a person authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed; (ii) identification of the work claimed to have been infringed (or if multiple works are covered by a single notification, a representative list of such works); (iii) identification of the material that is claimed to be infringing or the subject of infringing activity reasonably sufficient to enable us to locate the material; (iv) your name, address, telephone number and e-mail address; (v) a statement that the complaining party has a good faith belief that use of the material in the manner complained of is not authorized by the rights-holder, its agent or representative or the law; and (vi) a statement that the information in the notification is accurate, and under penalty of perjury that the complaining party is authorized to act on behalf of the owner of an exclusive right that is allegedly infringed. If you are seeking to send us such a notice with respect to a non-exclusive right, you must comply with the foregoing sections (i)-(vi), but in addition provide evidence to us on what basis you have the right to allege infringement and make a complaint."

Email Amazon at copyright@amazon.com. Provide a description of your book, link to the plagiarized version, contact information, a digital signature, proof that you are the copyright holder.

Email Nook Press at DMCANotice@barnesandnoble.com

Contact Smashwords through their website at https://www.smashwords.com/about/contact.

Contact Google through this link: https://support.google.com/legal/troubleshooter/1114905?hl=en

8. Contact search engine providers and request the removal of your stolen property.

Google https://support.google.com/legal/answer/1120734

Yahoo https://ipr.yahoo.com/copyright?.lang=en-US

Internet Explorer https://www.thewindowsclub.com/check-report-unsafe-websites-internet-explorer

9. Consult a lawyer if needed. You have to determine if the cost is worth the benefit. You can't get blood from a turnip or damages from a broke plagiarist. If the plagiarism is serious enough, as in the cut and paste thief who claims to have been an attorney, it may be worth pursuing. If you are backed by a large organization such as Romance Writers of America, you have more leverage. If the individual(s) are operating from a foreign country, you have little recourse other than the above tips for reporting them. Taking down outfits dedicated to scams is like playing whack-a-mole. Shut down one, another pops up in its place.

10. Enlist your posse. As a group, you have more influence. Twitter campaigns have taken down legitimate authors. This is the time to use social media to your benefit. As word spreads, other people may realize they've been victimized too. Being called out may not stop the plagiarist but they may move on to other victims.

This should go without saying, but never, ever fake a plagiarism scandal for attention. It has happened and the results will not be what you hoped for, especially if you mess with Nora.


Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

7 comments :

  1. The process to protect oneself from thieves and scam artists is very complicated, time-consuming, and expensive. From plagiarists to identify thieves, we're all so vulnerable.

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    Replies
    1. I fear scammers will soon outnumber employed people.

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  2. This is such a good check-list, Diana. Thank you. It makes me sad that we need it, though. Ugh, why can't people just do the right thing?

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  3. We writers pour heart and soul into our work. To have it ripped off by someone who made no effort to take it from idea to completed book and is reaping benefits from its theft is heart wrenching. Sadly, the victim, in this case the actual author, is again victimized by a system that seems to protect the thief and make appropriate penalty for the crime almost impossible, unless, of course, one has financial resources to match those of Nora Roberts.

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  4. What a great post, Diana. I'm with Nora. Why would anyone feel they've accomplished anything by cheating? Serruya was a Kindle Scout winner shortly after I won. Too bad she didn't write the book. :-(

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.