Cheater, cheater, cheater! My writing! Stolen!

It took about 40 hours to completely scrub this website. Instead of being proud (again, 40 long hours), I immediately got freaked out about plagiarizers stealing work samples from my portfolio page.

It’s a double-edged sword, jugging digital age expectations with theft concerns. On one hand, work samples prove a writer’s experience. Chucking those writing samples online makes for easier distribution, instead of gathering and emailing a series of .pdfs for each request. But (here comes the other hand), I worry whether this convenience also helps chronic plagiarizers. How convenient that I collected all those samples on one page. Easy picking.

Granted. I’m a worrywart. But this time, my fear isn’t groundless: to date, I’ve unearthed two (maybe three) attempts at stealing my writing work samples.

"Crackers," on Creative Commons.

"Crackers," on Creative Commons.

My virgin run at being an original content victim was at a job interview for a tech writing position. An entry-level tech writing position. At that time, my primary work sample was a complete user guide for a software system. OK, so a user guide isn’t technically art, but it was a huge accomplishment for a rookie tech writer. Written from scratch with only a thumbnail of understanding about the computers. Spending off-hours in bookstores, reading tech manuals for ideas on how to present the content. Transferring those ideas to define the layout and styles of the manual in (makes a dramatic pause) Microsoft Word—which is absolutely the worst tool to use in technical writing.

See, Word is great for writing stuff like what you’re reading here. Just words, without expectations. Using that software for tech manuals? If it’s graphics-heavy, Word’s performance starts crapping out at about 80 pages. Formatting is done with the neatest of acrobatics. Twenty-odd years after the digital revolution, Word still doesn’t retain consistent formatting. Graphics require some tricks to be anchored to relevant text, instead of jumping to the next page, or god forbid, overlapping the text, rendering the instructions impossible to read. In fact, I created quite a few hacks to make Word behave. Fighting Word to the death made writing that roughly 80-page user guide from scratch an even bigger accomplishment, and source of pride.

Which contributed to my being absolutely gobsmacked, when—at that entry-level interview—the hiring manager interrupted my glib flipping through the manual and asked if I really wrote all that content. Turns out, my competition presented the same manual for his work sample. Said it was his original work. (Not that he had updated existing content.)

The hiring manager, after I landed the job, told me what tipped the scales: differences between the content. His content was selections from the manual, with heavy editing mark ups. He could have been my successor, who simply forgot to draw the line between original work and updates. Or, he could have lifted the pages from a recycle bin. I, on the other hand, brought a complete and final copy of the manual. Likewise, intelligently talked through the ins and outs of formatting the manual in Word. Which got me the job.

Needless to say, that incident never left me. For the longest time, I put theft-deterrent devices in my technical documentation, such as putting my name on the frontispiece. But let’s be frank: if a thief wants your creative work, he’ll take it, regardless of all the copyright warnings you slap on it.

Take, for example, the Lucinda Cole incident. Cole, reportedly an up-and-coming musical sensation. Massive amounts of Twitter followers. (Which, by the way, can be bought.) Cole created a scam by successfully re-recorded, and re-named Jessica Simpson tunes, presenting them as her own. 

Because, after all, on the Internet, everything is knee-jerk reactionary. Everyone accepts. Nobody researches. Right?

Actually, some do. Like my friend the college professor. Warnings went off when a student’s paper included content that was accurate, but wasn’t covered in class.

He started checking sources. One option is TurnItIn software. Its many features include validating whether content is original. Another option is pulling up Google and entering the content you’re questioning in quote marks (for example: “Is this unique content?”), and see if Google locates the exact phrase. Which is how the professor discovered his student had copied-and-pasted content from various websites (including a site that was run by a high schooler) to build his term paper.

So, like my portfolio page. Don't swipe anything, OK?

So, like my portfolio page. Don't swipe anything, OK?

So, I relaxed a bit. These people can be stopped, like my original plagiarizer was stopped.

Besides, even though my new profile page is convenient, employment headhunters still ask me to email the content or bring hard copies to the interview. The gallery also doesn’t allow for downloads. Which forces thieves to take screen shots of the content, which will lose resolution, and produce a shoddy-looking work sample.

At least there are ways to make sure thieves aren’t completely successful.

But I’m still squirming.