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Hey, That’s My Story! What to Do When Credit Is Due

By Yael Grauer July 29th, 2016

After spending weeks researching and reporting a story for Slate about the consequences of algorithmic tattoo identification by law enforcement, I got wind of some disturbing news. A tiny site had paraphrased each paragraph in the post and summarized quotes from my carefully selected sources without any attribution.

It wasn’t straight plagiarism—but it wasn’t exactly ethical, either.

I’m not the only one who has dealt with this subtle form of idea theft, like when a publication rips off story concepts or re-reports stories as if they were their own. Without key words being copied and lifted, it can be difficult to prove that two writers or sites didn’t come up with ideas independently, which puts you in an ethical and legal gray area.

So, as a freelancer, what should you do if idea theft happens to you: Make a fuss, or let it go?

Editor’s note: We are not lawyers, and this article does not constitute legal advice.

Aggregation or theft?

On the internet, it’s common to see a writer use another writer’s reporting for the basis of their story, or write eerily similar stories on the same topic. As a result, it can be difficult to identify whether an article is aggregation or something more sinister.

In my case, I had enough evidence to believe the publication had consciously stolen my article. They had conveniently backdated their article to make it looked like it had been posted on June 28, but didn’t tweet it out until July 2 (my post went live on July 1). I ended up tweeting “A backlink would be nice” to the site and the writer. The post was taken down, and the writer told me she would revise it and provide attribution.

Unfortunately, it’s not always that easy.

Minneapolis-based writer Sam Richards had been covering the FBI’s domestic aerial surveillance operations for nearly a year, first on Medium and then on North Star Post. Then, BuzzFeed News posted a feature, “Spies in the Skies,” stating that the same program Richards had been reporting on had “received little public scrutiny—until now.”

“The BuzzFeed article basically replicated our reporting and included a fancy interactive map just like we’d been doing for months,” Richards told me.

BuzzFeed News refutes the claim. A BuzzFeed spokesperson sent me the following statement, attributed to editor-in-chief Ben Smith:

The BuzzFeed News article ‘Spies in the Skies’ is the result of original reporting, and did not paraphrase Sam Richards and the North Star Post. It was based on our own extensive research and analysis that drew from Flightradar24 data collected over a period of more than four months. The sources we did use were cited in our piece, and we were transparent in sharing the methods and data used in the reporting of this story.

But Richards points out that the freelancer who co-authored the article, Charles Seife, had followed him on Twitter for months before BuzzFeed published the post, and it’s possible that Richards had gotten his attention due to North Star Post’s reporting. (Seife did not respond to my request for comment.)

“This has been very disheartening and has had a chilling effect on my desire to work in investigative reporting. … What’s the point if the hard work that I do—including the risk involved with sticking my neck out by pointing out government surveillance operations—just gets ripped off by some click-baiting hacks?” Richards said.

BuzzFeed is far from the only site that writers believe has paraphrased their reporting. In fact, BuzzFeed News reporters have accused publications like Business Insider of unethically aggregating their content.

The reality is the line between aggregation and idea theft is often hard to see—and proving intent is another matter entirely. But there are still methods to employ if you’re suspicious.

What to do when you think idea theft occurred

The first investigative story I ever wrote—news I broke on a now-defunct MMA blog back in 2011—was rehashed in 2013 by another reporter on a far bigger site. Tellingly, I’d spent time filling him in on the details over phone and via chat, even digging up new details.

I reached out to him and then to his editor to ask for a link back to my original reporting, but ended up having to talk to someone higher up the chain, who asked me to send the original pieces I’d written on the topic. I sent him all of them—there were 13—and he made sure a link to my original breaking news piece was added to the post.

If your work is paraphrased or repurposed in a way you’re not comfortable with, there are a few steps you can take:

  1. Contact the writer or the editor to ask for a link to your work. Normally, this is effective.
  2. Contact their editor—or have your editor contact them. This is more serious, so be careful you’re not burning any bridges.
  3. Use social media. I’ve found that comments on Twitter from a third party get a lot of attention, both when I’ve personally called out an unethical writer for paraphrasing someone else’s work and when I’ve had friends or readers let publications know they liked their story better when I wrote it.

Before you do anything, remember that there’s always a chance that you are mistaken. So, if you’re unsure, be diplomatic in your approach.

Even if that’s not the case, it’s impossible to predict whether asking for a backlink or attribution will be effective. Sometimes it’ll be denied vehemently and you’re back to square one, often with little recourse. Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide how much time and energy (if any) to invest in writing blog posts, tweets, or even petitions to right the wrong.

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