Friend Friday: Blogger Copying

This week’s Friend Friday is about blogger copying, and as regular readers will even now be realising with a sinking heart, this is a subject I’ve come up against time and time again, both as a pro-blogger, and as a random girl on the internet who keeps finding photos of herself on eBay/forums/God knows where else. So, naturally, I found I had a LOT to say about it. Like, REALLY a lot. As in, “you might want to skip this one if you have any plans for the rest of the morning.”

1. What are the ‘unwritten rules’ about coping content that we bloggers should all abide by?

Well, I’m not sure about “unwritten” rules, but there are ACTUAL rules governing the reproduction of content, be it words, images or whatever. Publishing something on the Internet is no different from publishing something in a newspaper or magazine: you’re not allowed to just take someone else’s work and re-publish it without their permission. I think this is something a lot of people don’t really understand. There seems to be an idea that the Internet is “different” somehow, and that it matters less (or not at all) if you steal someone’s work online. It doesn’t. Copying someone else’s words or images is copyright theft. Passing it off as your OWN work is plagiarism. And copyright isn’t something that has to be explicitly stated, either. I have copyright notices on my images, and on my blogs now, but they’re purely there as a deterrent:  I don’t actually NEED to have those there in order to make the work “my” copyright,  it’s mine as soon as I write the words or take the photo. As this site explains in far better detail than I can, copyright protection is automatic, which, to me, means you should never, ever copy someone else’s work unless they’ve given their permission to do so.

I’ve rambled a bit here, but this is something that I think can’t be stated often enough, especially to people who are new to blogging.  Because I started my career in newspaper journalism I have had a certain amount of training on copyright law and how it works, but it does worry me that the Internet makes it possible for people to publish anything they want, without having even the slightest idea about the legalities of what they’re doing. I think that as a publisher (which is what bloggers are), you have a responsibility to know what you are and are not legally allowed to publish – not just in terms of copyright, but also in terms of libel, etc. It’s not enough to say, “Oh, I didn’t realise I wasn’t allowed to use your images!” which is the excuse that’s invariably given to me when I discover photos of myself advertising products on eBay: sorry, but ignorance is no excuse!

(I feel I should also point out here that copyright law is more complex than I’ve made it out to be here. There is also a Fair Use clause in US law, which allows certain people to use certain images without requesting the permission of the rights holder. It’s a fairly grey area, and I’m not the person best qualified to explain it, but it’s something that’s worth reading up on if you’re planning to publish online.)

2. They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. But when is a post imitation and when is it copying?

This is a really good question, and it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, as I’ve become aware of a handful of blogs which have clearly been “inspired by” The Fashion Police (some of them even admit to it in their posts, which are basically a long list of “I found this on The Fashion Police” and “I found this there too”), and which are doing exactly the same thing as I am: i.e. they’re not outright copying my posts word-for-word, but they’re writing about the same things, in the same way (often posting about the same products TFP has featured, right after we’ve posted about them), and some are even running the same daily/weekly features, and giving them the same names I do.

I’m not really sure how to react to these blogs, to be honest. I mean, sure, it’s flattering: these people obviously liked my blog enough to think “Hey, I could do that!” (OK, so maybe that bit’s NOT so flattering), but at the same time, I don’t really understand what the point is of having a blog that’s more or less a carbon copy of someone else’s site. Wouldn’t it be more satisfying to create something that’s your own? They’re not infringing my copyright, but I do think they’re “copying” me, whether they mean to or not.

The fact is, though, it’s really hard to know when someone is actively “copying” you. After all, I didn’t invent the idea of writing about bad fashion, or having a blog dedicated to “policing” the fashion world. I certainly didn’t invent the phrase “The Fashion Police” – it was an idea that was already out there, and which I decided to capitalise on. It’s perfectly plausible that someone else could come up with a similar idea and implement it without even having heard of my blog. In fact, the E! Network already have a show called “Fashion Police” and I’m pretty sure they’re not drawing inspiration from me.

What I’m trying to say is that when someone just copies and pastes your work, it’s pretty clear-cut. When it’s an IDEA, or an outfit, or a photo location, or whatever that’s being “copied”, then that becomes much, much harder. To be honest, I’d find a blogger who said, “OMG, I always take my outfit photos in the woods, so anyone else who takes their photos in the woods is copying me!” a little precious, and I suspect people would find me equally precious  if I said, “Look, I’ve been doing a <insert name of regular feature> post every day for five years, so no one else can do that now or they’re copying me.” And maybe they’d be right.

I totally didn’t answer that question, did I? Even although I wrote four hefty paragraphs on it. Moving on…

3. Taking another blogger’s idea (perhaps for an outfit, or DIY tutorial) is pretty common in the blogging world. Do  you think it is necessary to credit the original source?

When I first started blogging professionally, I was always instructed to credit the source if I’d found something on another site, and that’s something I’ve carried through to my own sites. I think it’s only polite, really, although I also think it’s important to realise  that linking back to the original source doesn’t make it OK to copy and paste someone else’s text or images. I can’t count the number of times I’ve contacted someone who has just reproduced huge chunks of my blog and had them say, “Oh, but I linked back to you!” Yes, you did, and I appreciate it, but that doesn’t mean you’re allowed to steal from me.

Of course, there’s a massive grey area here, too. It’s possible to write about the same thing as another blogger without actually having seen their site, for instance. This is really common in the world of shoe blogs, where Net-a-Porter, say, gets a new delivery of Louboutins in, and every shoe blogger around posts about the same, stand-out shoe. We’re not copying each other, we’re simply working in the same industry, which means we’re exposed to the same things, at roughly the same time, and that can occasionally create an illusion of “copying”.

For instance: back when I worked for Shiny Media, I once got a series of comments from a fellow blogger which really upset me: she felt the blog I edited at the time was “copying” her blog, which was certainly news to me because I hadn’t even heard of her site, and when I checked with the other writers, they hadn’t either. I emailed her privately and we managed to establish that there was no “copying” going on, it was simply a case of us both monitoring the same retailers and ending up writing about the same thing occasionally. (I also pointed out to her that there were many occasions where she’d written about the product in question AFTER we had, so I could just as easily have accused her of doing the copying… if I’d known about her blog.)

My point is that sometimes people who blog within the same niche will end up writing about the same thing, just as newspapers end up writing about the same thing, and coincidences do happen, so it’s important not to jump to conclusions. You also have to take unconscious influence into account, too. You know when you see something somewhere, but don’t really remember seeing it, so it feels like it’s your idea? I suspect this happens fairly frequently in the fashion blogging world, and I’d really hate to think someone was looking at my photos and thinking, “OMG, she’s wearing a blue skirt and yesterday I wore a blue skirt: COPYIST!!!!” Again, unless the person is dressed EXACTLY like you, to the extent that it looks like a parody, I don’t think you can afford to be too precious about it, or make too many assumptions.

(I am actually so paranoid about unconscious influence and the possibility of being accused of copying people that I actively avoid reading blogs that operate in the same niche as mine too often. I subscribe to them, and dip in and out every so often, but I generally avoid them, so that I can be confident that my ideas are my own. I think this is pretty silly, but that doesn’t stop me doing it anyway.)

4. How have you improved your blog by comparing it to other bloggers?  Have you made changes due to something you have seen others doing?

I try not to compare my blogs to other people’s, because I don’t think it’s always helpful: in fact, it can send me spiralling into a pit of despair, thinking, “WAH! Everyone is so much better than me, I want to change EVERYTHING!”  I obviously do read other blogs, though, and sure, there are certain changes I’ve made, mostly on the technical or design side of things. For instance, I started using LinkWithin on this site because I’d seen it on a few other blogs and really liked it: I also recently started trialling Disqus comments because I’d seen it on some other sites, and had been looking for something that would let me integrate my Twitter and Facebook comments with the ones posted directly on the blog.  Because I blog as a busines, I don’t tend to make changes just because I’ve seen someone else do it, though, because seemingly small changes can have a big impact on our revenue: if it’s a technical/design change, it has to be researched thoroughly first so I know it’s something that’s actually going to benefit us, and not just be a case of, “ooh, lookit! She did that, I think I’ll do that too!”

5. Have you ever had one of your posts copied by another blogger or publication? How did you handle the situation?

Ha. Where do I start? I’ve not only had posts copied, I’ve also had images copied, and, on two occasions, people have actually taken photos of me and claimed they were photos of THEM, so you could say I’ve also had MYSELF copied, as bizarre at that sounds. (Full story here and here, just in case this post wasn’t long enough for you) By this point, I have a set technique for dealing with it, which is to first of all contact the blogger, either privately, or, if there’s no email address displayed on the site, by leaving a comment.

I try to keep it friendly at this point (well, except in the two cases where people were actually trying to claim they WERE me: I must admit, the gloves were left at home for that) because my experience is that most of the time, the person doesn’t mean any harm by it, and just doesn’t realise they’ve done something wrong. So I’ll just say something like, “Hey, thanks for your interest in my post: I’m really flattered that you liked it enough to want to put it on your site, but I’m afraid my work is copyrighted and I don’t allow it to be reproduced elsewhere, so I’d really appreciate it if you could maybe just link to it instead, rather than posting it in its entirety.”

If that doesn’t work, and a large amount of content has been copied, I have, on occasion, contacted the company who hosts the website and asked for the copyrighted work to be removed. I should stress that I would only do this if it’s a “splogger” (i.e. someone who deliberately steals content in order to make money from it) or if the copying has been done to such an extent that it could be damaging to my business or reputation. In other words, I pick my battles.

In cases where the person hasn’t copied and pasted my post, but I’m pretty sure they’ve copied the idea behind it, I don’t normally do anything. After all, I can’t prove the person has copied me, and even if I could, what would I gain by “outing” them? They’d only deny it, anyway, so I normally just leave it be, and hope that any of my readers who happen upon the copycat post/site will realise what’s going on. I also try to take it as a compliment. When people STOP wanting to copy me… then I’ll start to worry.

(For more answers to these questions, check out the list of Friend Friday participants at Modly Chic)

P.S. Just in case that long ramble wasn’t enough for you, I was also interviewed by TribaSpace this week on the subject of blogging and shoes – you can read it here.