Some plagiarists are immediately found out—more so because that particular story is massively popular and the writer has a large fanbase whom can instantly remember where the copied story originally came from—while some copied stories go unnoticed and the credit and praise that should be given to the original person, goes to the plagiarist. In the realm of the internet, it makes taking credit for stories, articles, and even pictures (although this article is more focused on written works) so much easier. And it sucks. But that's a risk that everyone must acknowledge when we post anything online. Granted, that's also a risk when professionally publishing or self publishing an article or a story, but because it's much easier to copy stories on the internet, the cards are stacked even more against online users. Some websites have lines of code that prevents people from highlighting text so people can't copy and paste other's work, but a simple add-on from various browsers can easily get around this. If a person is patient enough, there's also nothing to stop them from hand writing or typing the story straight from the screen, similarly from someone copying straight from a book they may have purchased or borrowed. It's that easy.
Because it's that easy, there are some people whom create a huge rally against plagiarists, and while I applaud that these people are standing up for the original creators and standing against this act of infringing Intellectual Property rights, there are times where I think some people have gone too far, or is a tad misguided in their methods of getting rid of plagiarists. Sometimes, these so-called plagiarists and thieves aren't even doing anything wrong and have become the victims of those too quick to sound the alarm without looking into it more thoroughly. That kind of error can stick to these people on that website—or even on multiple sites if they use the same handle, or the accusations had spread to other sites because those accusers looked into their alternative handles on other sites. It's so easy to ruin a person's internet reputation, but it's so hard to fix it once the fact that it was a mistake on the accusers' part. That accusation can be quite slanderous and irreparable.
First, lets explore what can't be copyrighted.
Titles, unless it is a part of a series, cannot be copyrighted. That means while the titles Twilight, Pretty Little Liars, and 50 Shades are copyrighted, other book titles that are considered to be stand-alone cannot be copyrighted. The main reason that titles for a series of books can be copyrighted is because it's part of a trademark. The Twilight saga. The Pretty Little Liars series. The 50 Shades series. The Lord of the Rings trilogy. The For Dummies series. You get the picture. Series equates to trademarks. Unlike copyrights, trademarks aren't just handed out as soon as the idea of the first story is committed to paper, or screen. The trademark is only earned if you have a sequel, or trilogy to that first book.
If there was only one Walmart in the world, then someone else could call their own grocery store Walmart, because Walmart wouldn't have been copyrighted or considered a trademark, but because Walmart hit it big and was able to build more stores across the country, they made themselves a trademark, so now you can't call your own store Walmart because it would be considered misleading. However, I believe you have to actually register your title to the Patent and Trademark Office if you want to protect that title of your story (if it's a series), unless that story has been professionally published, then I'm sure your publisher would have already dealt with the PTO.
That means you can technically use stand-alone story titles as a title for your own story. It most probably wouldn't matter how long or expressive the title is, such as with Peter Weiss's play, The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. That being said, while there aren't very many exceptions, if at all, it doesn't mean that you absolutely cannot use the words in those copyrighted titles for your own title. You can call your story "The Twilight Field", for example. Twilight, as a single worded title, is copyrighted as a trademark, but barring the word for every future title would be absolutely ridiculous.
Similarly, short phrases and names cannot be copyrighted—well, actually, names can become a trademark too, but first names and last names by themselves cannot be copyrighted. That was my point. That means while you can have a character with the first name Harry, and another character with the last name Potter, you'll be fine, but you cannot have one character with the name Harry Potter. One reason is because Harry Potter is the name of J. K. Rowling's trademark with her own book series. Another reason is because Harry Potter as a character has enough unique traits to be it's own trademark in the series, even if it was just a stand-alone book.
Characters can become their own trademark in the book and can be protected under copyright; however you can't create a trademark copyright for every single character in the story. Usually only the main characters and a few other developed characters may be able for that eligibility. Minor or stock characters cannot be trademarked. There has to be enough originality and detail in the story itself, such as description, behavioral quirks, etc. to be able to say that this character is truly unique enough to be able to be recognizable in a group of other characters in order to be even considered for protection under copyright. Of course characters under a trademarked series of books would be easier to be protected than stand-alone stories, but there may still be some things that can be done.
Any idea you have that you haven't put into tangible form, whether it be sketched, written, composed or recorded cannot be copyrighted. That being said, there are some things in tangible form that either still cannot be copyrighted, or, if someone else has something somewhat similar, doesn't infringe on your own copyrights. For example, on some sites, such as QuoteV and You-Fic, members can use HTML and CSS to personalize their profiles. In fact, sometimes, when someone enquires a member how they achieved a circular box, the person spouts out "No, because I don't want you copying me!" Well, if they copied every single line of code so that their profile looks exactly like yours, sure, that could be a problem, but if they want a circular box for their own profile so they can make their own unique page, that isn't copyright infringement at all whatsoever. One or a few lines of code on their own cannot be copyrighted.
(By the way, for those of you whom are curious, round boxes can be achieved through border radius, which I will leave it up to you to look it up.)
This is similar to story ideas.
There was a case where Jordan Scott accused Stephenie Meyers of plagiarism in Breaking Dawn from Scott's own work she wrote as a teenager called The Nocturne. Plagiarism can be defined in one of two ways: when something is copied verbatim, or using someone else's idea and passing it off as your own creation. It's the latter part of the definition that Scott had issues with.
I thought you just said ideas can't be copyrighted, huh?
There's more to it than that, so stop interrupting me.
While The Nocturne is set in France about half a millennia ago with a romance between a sorcerer and a normal human girl, and Meyers's fourth installment is set in present-day Forks, Washington with a romance between a vampire and a human (later turned into a vampire), the story seems quite different from the book jacket. The problem that the case focuses on is that the set of events—post-wedding sex (on a beach), carrying an evil spawn (or just an incredibly strong child), and that the wife "dies" giving birth—seemed to be similar.
Hmmm, where else has these scenarios been done? Charmed definitely comes to mind, but I'm sure there are other books, movies, comics or shows that have something similar to any of those three scenes (even all of them together).
So where is the line drawn? Is this case really considered copyright infringement, or plagiarism?
Actually, the judge, Otis D. Wright II, dismissed the case, saying that the "characters in the two works are vastly different." Not to mention that Scott tried to manipulate perspectives of the books in order to fabricate that Breaking Dawn and The Nocturne were more similar than they actually were. The judge luckily saw through this and analyzed the books side-by-side, and Meyers's own lawyer was right on the money when he said that this was just a stunt by Scott to get more fame for her own books.
If the story and the characters are different, the scenes, no matter how similar (unless it was copied verbatim and had names replaced, etc.), will not be a legal or copyright issue. And this is especially true in this case because post-wedding sex that leads to immediate pregnancy are staged events that can happen in any number of books. The powerful baby thing happened because one dude was a vampire, and the other was a sorcerer, so of course it makes sense that that would happen in either stories. While this isn't a case of plagiarism or copyright infringement, you could say that this is a set of cliched circumstances, but in a more elegant phrase it's known as scenes a faire, where basic scenarios are so common or can be considered as stock because so many other works have used them before.
You also have to take into account of the rest of each book—they are different. Period. Even if you aren't a fan of Meyers, you cannot say that the books are the same, or even remotely similar. Stock scenes, in its basic outline, cannot be copyrighted. This is also the same as basic outlines for the whole novel, and when I say "basic," "skeletal" would be the more appropriate word to use. Of course, this could be a case by case, but if the outline you're trying to protect isn't detailed in any way aside from a bunch of stock scenes, and a few character mock-ups, then it most probably could not be protected at all. Even if the other party had those stock scenes in their story, maybe even in the same order, if they have more scenes, detailed characters, setting, and an original and developed plot, and the story is finished, there probably wouldn't be a lawyer around that would take on that case for any amount of money (unless they were incredibly desperate); however if your idea and outline is detailed—fully fleshed short of actually writing down the story—then you might have a case if you took precautions to make sure that your outline and story notes' date of authorship can be verified, such as mailing yourself the notes and not opening the envelop (because the judge handling your case would be the one to open it), or actually filing for copyrights for your notes.
In fewer words, basic ideas and basic scenes aren't copyrightable (unless the sequence of scenes [if they don't commonly go together] are the same). That means I, too, can safely write about a human falling in love with a vampire and with a shape-shifter or a werewolf without infringing Meyers's rights. I, however, cannot make vampires sparkle, because that is definitely copyrighted by her because it is a clearly recognizable contribution to the creative interpretation of vampires.
I can also write about a student going to a wizard school, or a post-faerie-vs-human apocalypse, or a myriad of other ideas and plot-lines. Basic ideas of a work cannot be copyrighted, but the whole work can.
Similar to the basic and skeletal anything, poses cannot be copyrighted in images unless that pose is super unique—as in only a double-jointed person in every area of the body would be able to pull that pose off, or something along those lines. However if, say, you draw the pose with the same outfit as the picture you're referencing off of, then that would be a problem. Tracing, so the character and the model look identical in the same pose would also be a problem. Saving the image, even if the image is a stock picture of a pose, and reposting it, with or without credit, and without permission, is definitely copyright infringement without a doubt.
The main reason why basic ideas, or basic plots, or a few lines of code, or poses cannot be copyrighted is because even if a thousand people use these ideas, they each can come up with drastically different results and interpretations.
Copyright is meant to protect the whole work, not pieces or small parts of the whole.
Those are the two basic complaints I often notice when someone assumes another has stolen their property—titles and the ideas. Before I move on to the specific steps on what I think should be done if you suspect someone may have stolen your work, or another person's work, I want to talk about the word "theft." Theft is often used when talking about plagiarism or copyright infringement, but, by definition, it actually doesn't have anything to do with these kinds of cases.
Theft means to take something, yes, but it also has an implication that the original owner doesn't have that item anymore. You had a bike, someone took it, and now you don't have that bike anymore. That person stole your bike and you can't use it until you either replace it or get the original bike back. You can't even sell the bike for money if you don't have it in your possession.
With some cases of copyright infringement, or plagiarism, someone makes a copy of the content and uses it however they want without your knowledge or permission, while the original owner still has their original item and can still use it however they like. The only real difference is that the copyright infringer is creating unfair competition, or is getting credit unfairly when it should be given to the original owner, and that's the part that hurts the most—when people are praising the infringer when it should be given to them.
While copyright infringement and unfairly given praise may feel like they have physically taken something from you, it isn't considered "theft," it's just called copyright infringement especially in the eyes of the court. Now let's say that a person stole your thumb-drive with your stories in it and then tries to sell your stories. That would be considered theft as well as copyright infringement, but for two separate reasons. In a casual, and emotional, talk, the word theft can slide, but if you're trying to file a DMCA or ask a site administrator to take down the infringer's work, you might not want to put, "They stole my story. It's clearly theft."
With all of that out of the way, if you do suspect that someone has copied yours or someone else's work online, what should you do? How about a list of don'ts first:
Don't immediately accuse the person of copyright infringement, plagiarism, or theft, whether it be on the story itself, in a thread on a forum somewhere, in a rant book or a journal entry.
Don't immediately file a DMCA or contact the site administrator for this.
Don't try and get more people involved and mass report the story in question thinking that this will definitely get the story deleted. (It won't.)
Now for the list of do's:
1. Find the Original Owner
Trust me, if you can't find the source, you don't have any proof that the person is infringing or plagiarizing anyone. There is no site administrator in their right mind that would take, "I know this work isn't theirs, but I can't find the original person right now," seriously. They would instantly delete it and move on to the next report.
Of course there's another reason for trying to find the original owner, and that's because maybe your suspect actually is the original owner.
One time, in that rare mood when I actually wanted to read other people's stories, I noticed that I had someone in my favorite authors list that I hadn't favorited before, so I checked out their profile and was thoroughly confused. I looked at their profile and the list of their stories, and, for the life of me, I just knew I knew the person, but they went by a different username. For a good few minutes I began sweating bullets because I was convinced that this person was trying to pass themselves off as a friend of mine, but, after reading a few reviews of some of the stories, of which I also recognized, I then realized that they merely changed their username. It's a darn good thing I didn't make a fool of myself and raise the alarm!
But aside from them wanting a change in their username, maybe the person has different handles on different sites. It sure makes avoiding certain people easier with different usernames, but it can definitely get confusing for other people. Find the site with the earliest published date, and go to the next step.
2. Contact the Original Owner
Seriously. There are some people who get so frantic about plagiarism and copyright infringement that they don't even let the original person know. In these cases, ignorance is not bliss. I would definitely like to know if someone was using my work to get attention, or, worse, money!
More importantly, you need to ask them whether or not the identity on the other sites are actually them, because if that infringer is actually them with just another username, then it's a good thing you didn't just accuse the owner of plagiarizing their own work. Secondly, if the two usernames aren't the same person, did original owner give the other person permission to post the story on another site? If the person did get permission from the original owner, there's no problem, therefore a DMCA is unneeded.
Now if the two usernames aren't the same person, but the person didn't get permission, the original owner may also simply not care. That's another option for the original owner because it's ultimately the original owner's responsibility to choose whether or not to take action against this other person, not yours.
If the original owner doesn't respond to you after a while, then you can try and report the story yourself if you're absolutely convinced that the person in question isn't the original owner but, then again, some sites don't allow third-party reports, so there may be nothing you or anyone aside from the original owner can do.
3. Ask the Original Owner If They Would like Any Help
Some sites only have the report button for members, and anyone that's a non-member can't report the story. If the website can only be reported to by the original owner, then the original owner can either create an account, or try to contact the site administrators through email and get it resolved. Of course there are also some sites that take third-party reports, so if the person doesn't want to create an account, if they want you to fill out a report for them, you definitely have their permission.
Aside from reporting, the original owner may also want help in letting other people know that the other person had used their work without permission. This is ultimately just to let people know to check them out to make sure they don't have any works of people they recognize, or their own. I wouldn't recommend making a thread just to bash the infringer in question because:
(1) They may really have no idea that this isn't allowed, or that it's ethically immoral, especially if they did give credit. Sometimes, once the original owner talks to them, and everything is straightened out, then they won't do it again. (I prefer to give people the benefit of the doubt.)
(2) You'll all just end up making yourselves look like harassers and bullies.
(3) Even if they perfectly knew it was wrong, I doubt having a thread dedicated to insulting them will make them change their ways.
If they don't have an account on the site, they may want you to let people know where to find the original story directly on the infringer's story comments until the report is filed in and taken down.
That's really about all I wanted to say on this subject. I do despise copyright infringement, especially plagiarism, but I do think that some people get carried away when they're trying to report these people. I'm more concerned for those people whom are actually not doing anything wrong, as described in the first half of this piece, but I just think that the ultimate responsibility or reporting plagiarized or infringed work lies with the original owner. Also, sometimes just a simple private conversation with the person in question could solve the problem.