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The Death of Article Re-Writes

Article re-writes and spinning have been a mainstay of article-based marketing and some content marketing strategies for a long time. It makes sense to try and copy what works. But as we’ve seen in the case of Samsung and Apple, copying and plagiarism can lead to major setbacks for a business.

Apple accused Samsung of infringing on its patents on certain mobile phones and won a billion-dollar settlement against them. This may block those phone models from being sold in the US. What does this have to do with content marketing?

What Is a Copyright and Why Does It Matter?

Whenever an author puts words to paper, the author automatically has the copyright to the material. They can sell it, print it, edit it, make videos and movies from it, or anything they like. When content creation is outsourced, the writer sells the copyright to the client. A copyright protects you from others earning money either on your investment (if you had content created for you) or your hard work (if you wrote it yourself). If someone infringes on your copyright, just as in the Apple patent case, you can take them to court for damages.

On the flip side, if you publish something similar to someone else’s work which that person deems to have infringed on his copyright, you could receive a DMCA takedown notice, which negatively impacts your SEO ranking, or find yourself on the wrong end of a lawsuit.

Where’s the Line?

We try to protect you and your copyright by running articles through Copyscape, an anti-plagiarism filter. Unfortunately, Copyscape only sees combinations of words, not thoughts or ideas. An article that passes Copyscape is unique in its word choice. However, the word choice may not create enough of a difference in thought or expression to prevent accusations of plagiarism.

Recently, noted CNN reporter Fahreed Zakaria was accused of plagiarism. The New York Times shows his version and the original side by side in this piece. This sample would not have passed Copyscape – there’s a full sentence that is exactly the same. Zakaria claimed that it was a mistake, and he meant to credit Jill Lepore, the original author. If he had credited her, the article would have adhered to journalistic conventions and the subject would never have come up.

Boston Globe editor faced a similar plagiarism charge over similarities between a Globe commentary on a recent speech by Joe Biden, which was published after radio station WBUR’s comment on the same topic. Here’s the respective introductory comments:

Globe: When Vice President Joe Biden warned a Virginia rally of hundreds of African Americans that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant “They’re going to put y’all back in chains,” Stephanie Cutter, Team Obama’s deputy campaign manager, said the president would have “no problem with those comments.”

But imagine if Republican Paul Ryan uttered comments like that. Mitt Romney’s pick for vice president would be pilloried for racial insensitivity — and so would Romney. In the fight for civility and substance over pointless hyperbole, Biden may not be the worst offender. But he’s an offender nonetheless, and he should apologize.

WBUR: Vice President Joe Biden did it again. Speaking at a Virginia rally Tuesday that included hundreds of black supporters, he warned that Republican efforts to loosen bank regulations meant, “They’re going to put y’all back in chains.”

Imagine if Paul Ryan said something so foolish and inflammatory. Surely there would be the kind of indignation aroused by Ross Perot when he said “you people” in addressing an NAACP convention in 1992. Or the indignation caused by Bill Clinton when he noted during the 2008 campaign that Barack Obama won a state primary that Jesse Jackson also won.

The Globe article mentions one of WBUR’s main points, but it is significantly shorter and has a different ending. It would have passed Copyscape. Someone highlighted the issue to the Globe, which then added the source at the end of the article without a link. It’s not clear if the Globe edited the article to make it more unique.

Neither of these instances have led to a court case, but both required additional work to resolve the issue. Zakaria’s post was removed entirely.

Are Re-Writes Plagiarism?

Let’s consider this case as if the Globe had asked for a re-write of the WBUR editorial. How would you feel in WBUR’s shoes?

The word chains are different, but the ideas and flow of the article are the same. While you might like gaining support for your cause or having your ideas spread, you’d still like to receive credit for those ideas.

Google wants items that add value to the visitor’s experience – that’s your carrot to create good content – and they’ve added DMCA takedown requests to their list of negative SEO factors – the stick. When you ask simply to re-work someone else’s ideas, you’re not adding value to a visitor, but you are putting yourself at risk for DMCA takedown requests. Why would you risk a step that doesn’t add to your SEO and may lower it?

 But Asking For Article Re-Writes Is Easy!

Yes, asking for an article re-write is easy. Asking for a new riff on an existing piece is just as easy and may bring you more value. There are some minor, easy changes to take to existing orders to give you fresh content that adds value to your readers.

  1. Ask for an article on your topic, not a re-write. You may have found a great “Top 10 Beaches in Hawaii” article or “5 Ways to Lower Car Insurance Rates For Teens” blog post. Instead of your title being “Article Re-writes,” ask for “Top 10 Beaches in Hawaii.” Your writer may find better beaches or easier savings tips on their own.
  2. Give more than one source. There are usually many articles on any given topic. Give your writer two of your favorites. They’ll either balance between the two or synthesize a new article out of the sources. Either way, the result should be significantly different and keep you safe from DMCA takedown requests.
  3. Ask for a reaction to an article. Instead of asking for the top 10 beaches, ask for why those beaches are terrible, why there should be only one top beach, or refute it with another list entirely.
  4. Include your source. As Mathew Ingram points out, linking saved Gawker Media from plagiarism charges in court. You may be looking to outrank a competitor in the rankings. If they already have a good ranking, why not try to leverage their position by linking? Yes, you add one link to their profile – make it a nofollow or link to their Twitter profile, like Bruce Clay Inc does in their SES SF recap. These strategies don’t add any juice to their site yet still recognize them as an expert. You get the positive association with their reputation and positioning and may build or integrate into the community.
  5. If you only have one good source that you like, then in your order description write, “Please write about the Top 10 Beaches in Hawaii using the article found at www. _____.com as source material.”  This makes it clear to the author that you don’t want simple article re-writes, whereas “please re-write the article found at www. _____.com” could be confusing to an author.  The author might think that the copyright to that article is owned by you and you just want it to be “spun,” which might lead to a very close re-write that results in a DMCA takedown request.

Creating or sourcing custom content that adds value is just as easy as asking for a re-write. Why not choose content that has a better chance of improving your rankings? Start looking at re-writes as reactions!

We are not lawyers, and this is not legal advice. If you are unsure if something could get you in legal trouble, please consult a licensed attorney.


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