Hey! Someone borrowed my pics!

A strange ‘referrer’ popped up on my stats page a day or two ago. So, intrigued, I hopped on over to the link for a look. It was a bulletin board called Skyscraper City. I’d not heard about them before.

I had a look at the particular thread that was referring back to my blog, and saw that it was all about the Green Point Urban Park Initiative. The forum moderator, Mo Rush, had borrowed some of my photos of the new Cape Town stadium and its surroundings.

I had recently written a post about the new Green Point Urban Park, which is still being landscaped and ‘beautified’ in preparation for the FIFA 2010 Football World Cup starting in South Africa on 11 June this year.

Although I am thrilled that someone thought they were nice enough photos to borrow, it would have been even nicer if he had dropped me a line or left a comment on my blog to tell me. Not because of copyright infringements or anything like that, because he did kindly credit my blog and my photos fortunately do contain a reference back to my blog, but merely out of old-fashioned courtesy.

As it is, I’m left feeling a little… hm… ambivalent.

I mean, I do realise that everything I publish on the blog, or anywhere else for that matter, is in the public domain and no longer “belongs” to me as such. So I really shouldn’t be surprised, or annoyed, or aggrieved when my words or images suddenly appear on another website. Perhaps I should feel strangely pleased?

And yet, I do still feel an emotional attachment to the photos I take and the text I write, probably because it is nonetheless a kind of diary, albeit a very public kind of online diary.

I thus began to ponder my own reaction.

I have been proofreading and editing students’ dissertations, primarily postgraduate but also undergraduate, for the last 15 years. It’s what I do. Over the years, as more and more students have become internet-savvy, however, I’ve noticed a definite increase in the more obvious forms of plagiarism.

For instance, a Master’s level student (and sometimes, horrifyingly, even a Doctoral student) will sometimes send me a draft thesis where I am preeeeetty sure that sections of it have been copied verbatim from the internet. I can usually tell, because the style of writing has suddenly changed, or because there are no obvious errors in spelling, punctuation or grammar. The most obvious giveaway is when the actual typographical style of the text changes, i.e. it’s a different type of font, the letters are a different size, or it even says ‘Webformat’. Yes, that still happens.

Usually, I will copy the entire suspect phrase into Google; and, more often than not, it will lead me to the original source website. Furthermore, I will usually find a whole lot MORE phrases “borrowed” from the same source.

Now this wouldn’t necessarily be a problem, if the student had bothered to use quotation marks or indicated the author’s name or at least included the URL. But sometimes they just don’t. I don’t know whether they do this deliberately, or carelessly, or out of laziness, or because they expect me to rewrite it in my own words for them, or because they are just plain ignorant.

When I confronted a student whose draft thesis consisted almost entirely of copied-and-pasted, spliced-together passages from the internet – and other sources I couldn’t trace, he freely admitted that he had done so. He said he didn’t have time to write the thesis himself. He had no guilty conscience and felt no remorse. In fact, he expected me to rewrite it for him, because I was an ‘editor’ after all. Oh, and the document was twice as long as it was supposed to be, so he expected me to halve it in length. Oh, and to summarise the important ideas too, so that he could use them in his conclusion, which he hadn’t written yet.

Once I’d picked myself up off the floor, I terminated our working relationship with immediate effect.

Regardless of the reason, as any lecturer will tell you, this is blatant plagiarism. The student is passing off someone else’s ideas as their own. It’s not only unethical but illegal, and – when discovered to have been deliberate – it will lead to the student’s expulsion from the university. And so it should.

I’m often confronted by ethical questions like these in the course of my work. As a result, when I borrow ideas or images from someone in my own writings, I make an effort to acknowledge them (at least when I can find the source!).

It’s a way of saying thank you, and honouring someone else’s creative efforts.

And perhaps that is why this little episode of my pictures suddenly appearing somewhere else has pushed my buttons a little.

How do you feel about your own blog? Do you get all het-up when someone pinches a particularly clever idea or a really pretty photo? Or do you let it all go out into cyberspace, as soon as you hit that ‘Publish’ button?

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts.

15 thoughts on “Hey! Someone borrowed my pics!

  1. Although my Blog is moribund – or do I mean dormant? – it contains no pics, and only my famblings, not big factual chunks of content like yours. I feel ambivalent. Sort of yes, well, no, fine …. on the one hand its a sort of backhanded compliment, and on the other …. On the topic of plagiarism I agree with you, and am shocked to learn of the student’s casual disregard … does not bode well for the future. Alison

    • Thank you, Alison, that makes me feel a little better. I do know I’m overreacting, but at least sharing it on the blog helped me to process those feelings.

      Why is your blog ‘moribund’, Alison? What is the URL? Did you go with WordPress? And what happened with the novel you wrote during NaNoWriMo? I’m curious!

  2. I think it depends on the blogger’s intent. Some think of it as a way to promote others, by showcasing your work and linking back to you as the source. That way readers of the other blog can find the person who created that wonderful something. I hope it brings more readers to your blog.

    So many photographers use Flickr and Wikipedia now as a way to promote their work. Now with Creative Commons Share-Alike licensing and GNU Free Documentation Licensing it’s standard practice to give license to others to use their work as long as it’s credited properly.

    From what you’ve stated, it seems the person was operating more under that impression than one of plagiarizing. Maybe you can drop that person a comment about it and then the next time that blogger posts an image they will think about researching further how to credit the source using the proper process. On Wikipedia, for example, some sources will state to contact them first before posting, and all uses must be attributed properly.

    By the way, you do have some beautiful photos posted. Enjoyed them.

    • Hi Miki – welcome to my blog! 🙂 Thank you for the comment, and I’m pleased that you like the photos.

      Yes, you make a good point about the Creative Commons licence etc. And it is very nice to get new readers that way. The reason I wrote about this was because I had such an immediate emotional response (one that wasn’t entirely rational, I admit, but then one’s emotions can be quite unexpectedly raw) and I wanted to get to the bottom of that. And I was also curious to hear whether other bloggers have similar experiences, and what they think about it. So I appreciate your feedback.

      And now, because you left a comment on my blog, I was able to pop over to your blog and have a squizz at what you write about. I really enjoy that kind of inter-linking and networking. 🙂

  3. Well I will be DAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA%$#$#@! This is a form of plagiarism, compliment or not. People love to copy, as many a museum has found out to their cost.
    I feel like you, a love of the photo’s that you took and the feeling that they are “yours”This is how they they should remain, are others so dredfully lazy that they cannot be bothered to go out and do their own work?

  4. I understand how/why you have mixed feelings about this.
    I’ve had only one instance of someone using my pics and it was done in exactly the ‘right’ way: with a very polite email request to use a couple of my photos, an explanation of in what context they would be used and with a promise to credit me as photographer. I said yes of course and felt really quite pleased and flattered. But even so I also felt a little twinge of anxiety about it… my little photos going off into the big world all by themselves! not worthy! how did they find me? my blog has readers, who knew and how very odd! (and all sorts of other irrational nonsense).
    As far as I know no-one has used my pics without permission – if it was done without credit I would be really cross. I think it is understood (i.e. basic good manners/net etiquette) to always credit the source (if you use someone else’s material in any way) with a mention in one’s text and with a live link (the submitter on that forum did the bare minimum in this regard).

  5. Apologies.

    The images were only meant to act as a source of sharing information about the progress of the park. I have removed them, and will replace them if you feel otherwise.

    Skyscrapercity, is there to provide the latest progress on projects across the country.

    Would be great if you joined and added your images.

    • Hi Mo – I’m thrilled you used the photos on your site, and I really appreciate you stopping by and letting me know why you used them. Please feel free to add them again. I had not heard of Skyscrapercity before, so thank you for explaining what it is.

  6. Hi there,
    this is a really nice blog that you have- i’m from India, and have always had the urge to visit SA- at least through your blog, I can see some of its beauty!

  7. Hi there!

    I think plagiarism is one of the writing world’s greatest enemy nowadays. I have to admit, when I do my homework on stuff I just copy a paragraph or two from Wikipedia without declaring that it came from the site. (Shhh!)

    Anyway, it is really needed to cite your references when you’re copying someone else’s work. It is very rude to just grab his work without telling.

    Usually, I will copy the entire suspect phrase into Google; and, more often than not, it will lead me to the original source website. Furthermore, I will usually find a whole lot MORE phrases “borrowed” from the same source.

    Yeah, my teacher does that to catch people who simply copied from the Net. I’m glad I’ve never been caught but my conscience is banging me. One of my resolutions this year is to stop plagiarism.

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