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What means do users have to report plagiarism or posting of copyrighted work?

A button to flag content as plagiarism would be useful. It's not quite "offensive," and should probably have a different effect on reputation.

I've noticed users posting large paragraphs copied verbatim from elsewhere on the Internet.

Worse, these answers often get many upvotes (it's generally good content, just not original). This encourages this behavior and is unfair to users who respect copyright and only post original material.

You could leave comments addressing these issues to the people posting these swathes, but comments don't change the fact that the site still contains the plagiarized material, so it's still in violation of copyright. I've commented on several posts that were blatantly stolen from copyrighted material, and nothing was changed.

Legally (well, technically at least, IANAL) Stack Exchange must remove the offending material as soon as they are made aware the content is infringing, even before the copyright holder is aware their copyright has been violated. Once the copyright holder is aware, Stack Exchange could be subject to lawsuits or DMCA takedown notices. Despite the cc-wiki license, SE could be found responsible if they were aware and did not take appropriate action to remove said content. Since they do not own the content, all redistributed copies (torrents of content dumps) must also be removed. Big headaches for all.

Wouldn't it be better if users could flag copyrighted content, provide a link to the (original) source, and mark it for removal? It would use a similar quorum process as deleting other content.

This would help ensure the content found on Stack Exchange is original, is protected and covered by the cc-wiki license as intended. Simply having an easy way to flag content and a clear policy would go a long way.

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Moved my comment down to be part of my answer. –  Joel Coehoorn Sep 1 '09 at 21:47
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Off topic spelling question: I only know plag*i*arism. No-one uses it in this thread. Is plagarism correct, too? –  Ladybug Killer Sep 2 '09 at 8:01
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@John Smithers: Snow Leopard's Dictionary only contains your spelling. –  LeakyCode Sep 2 '09 at 8:09
    
Whiled I edited it, thinking it to be a clear case of of a misspelled word, now I am not so sure. Probably one of those words that has been abused so much both spellings have become valid. Oh well... –  Stu Thompson Sep 2 '09 at 8:37
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+1: great question...I've half wondered about it myself...I bet it has happened... –  Stu Thompson Sep 2 '09 at 8:38
    
@Stu: no mix, please! –  Ladybug Killer Sep 2 '09 at 9:15
    
Thanks for the spellcheck.. misspelling on my part. –  jmanning2k Sep 2 '09 at 17:25
    
@jmanning2k: Doesn't copyright law allow using selected quotes from the works of others as long as proper attribution is included? If an answer is obviously quoting a minimal part of some copyrighted material, is it enough for either the OP to provide the attribution info or for someone else to provide the required info in a comment to that answer? –  oosterwal Mar 7 '11 at 22:49
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Yes, but I was referring to content with no such attribution. It's still hard to identify these and remove them on SO. In fact, by awarding rep and making it hard to challenge, users are rewarded for "borrowing" content from other sites and claiming credit for it. –  jmanning2k Mar 14 '11 at 14:36

6 Answers 6

It's important here to separate the copyright issue from the the plagiarism issue, as they are two different things.

SO must remove the offending material as soon as they are made aware the content is infringing, even before the copyright holder is aware their copyright has been violated.

From a copyright perspective, I don't think that's true. Instead, they have to remove infringing content as soon as the copyright owner requests it. The difference is that some owners encourage the spread of their content in this manner, often in the simple hope of gaining notoriety.

That's subtle, but it makes a huge difference in how I think we should handle this. Since everything in the US now has an automatic copyright, it's likely there's plenty of content on SO directly copied from random urls (blogs) with no explicit license. That content does infringe on copyright. However, if Jeff is browsing his own site and comes across something like that he isn't obligated to remove it immediately, even when he knows it infringes. This is because he doesn't know that the copyright owner would want it removed.

This also means flagging content for copyright violations is pointless. As moderators, we can't make the decision to remove content or not on behalf of the copyright owner. Again, IANAL, but if I understand it correctly if they start doing that they could lose DMCA section 230 "safe harbors", because at this point we're making our own determination about what is infringing rather than being a "dumb" service provider; that could leave us liable for content that we miss.

It's important to note that this doesn't mean I support plagiarism — just that plagiarism is a separate issue from copyright. As a user of the site I can still edit a post to properly cite an original work, remove the infringing content, downvote it, comment on the post calling out the user, or any or all of the above. But as a moderator on meta, I won't delete content for copyright infringement without a notice from the original copyright holder, and even those I'd refer to team@stackoverflow.com.

Also, looking at the moderator tools available to me here on meta I'm not sure I have the ability to fully comply with a DMCA takedown request anyway. The most I can do is force a deletion, but that's still visible to users with 10K rep and a copy of the content would still exist on the server. It's something they may need to consider, but I'm guessing Jeff can go in and really delete something if he needs to, even if it means a custom sql query.

The only time I think flagging a post for a copyright violation might be appropriate is if you are the copyright holder and you don't require full enforcement of your DMCA rights. If you feel standard deletion is good enough, even though a copy would still be visible to 10K users of the site, then you could try to flagging first. At least then it would be invisible to Google, and you may find this easier than a full DMCA request. Even here, I'm not sure we want to ask mods to take it on faith that you really are the copyright holder.

Finally, to anyone who might read this after finding their own content infringed by a Stack Exchange user, please just e-mail team@stackoverflow.com and I'm sure they'll be happy to remove it for you.

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+1. Related: Jeff's blog entry about Youtube. –  LeakyCode Sep 1 '09 at 22:27
    
The post: codinghorror.com/blog/archives/000972.html –  Joel Coehoorn Sep 1 '09 at 23:27
    
I wonder if Wikipedia purges copyrighted content thoroughly, or if it can still be see in edit histories. –  Stu Thompson Sep 2 '09 at 8:40
    
@Stu Thompson: yes, they purge it very thoroughly, but only after a complaint has been filed. Then a public review for a delete request is undertaken. This is the same process for entries about (public) living persons, who, if they're not public, often request deletion. However, while they can do a hard delete (incl. history), wiki content can be spread anywhere, which they cannot and will not reach. –  Abel Jul 26 '10 at 18:12
    
This is an interesting issue that SO will have to confront at some point. Even if the author "cites" their source, it won't always be acceptable if they've just cut and pasted an entire article. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out. –  Django Reinhardt Jun 13 '11 at 20:43
    
Do you have an interest in commenting on or posting an answer to this post? Your answer seems to suggest (if subtly) that moderators are inhibited from acting on copy/pastes that might potentially violate copyright, because they are setting an implied precedent for acting on "takedown" requests, and therefore giving the impression that they are acting as "agents" of SE corporate. Perhaps you could clarify? Mods can act to remove offending material (as a community member), but not if the "copyright" word is in the flag? –  Robert Harvey Dec 2 '11 at 15:57
    
Wish granted: meta.stackexchange.com/a/114556/3043 –  Joel Coehoorn Dec 2 '11 at 18:03
    
+1 the copyright owners have the responsibility for tracking down and enforcing their copyright, if they so choose. If SO takes it on themselves, they become responsible for copyright violations. –  JimmyPena Feb 2 '12 at 17:04

What's not offensive about plagarism? Copying from another source, in a way that violates fair-use, is plainly offensive. While I don't know that we need to cite things the same way that one would in a paper, you ought to provide a live link to the reference and somehow indicate that you are quoting the material (use the handy, quoting feature of the editor).

I often use a style like:

Quoting from reference:

Here's a handy tip that I found to be very useful.

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By the way: copying verbatim quotes, even including proper sourcing, is not citing properly, nor is it covered by fair use.

Citing, and fair use, only apply if a quote is used in context, e.g. to illustrate/prove a point (citing a standard document). Although common practice, pasting an answer from a web site or book is not, and never was, covered by fair use.

Personally, I am very opposed to any kind of copyright enforcement that restricts free access to knowledge, and as such am opposed to the removal of any such content. But that’s my personal view and I’m fair enough to acknowledge that some people may not share it, and are (for whatever weird reasons) opposed to the dissemination of their work. As such, I agree with @jmanning2k that there probably should be a mechanism to deal with such infringement quite efficiently, if (and here I agree with Joel Coehoorn) the copyright owner requests it. On the other hand, wouldn’t an e-mail to one of the admins/moderators be enough? Does such an infringement happen on a regular basis?

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Why can't you just use the Requires Moderator Attention flag? Or rather than wait for a moderator, edit the post to remove the infringing material, replace it with appropriate links to the actual source, or edit it so it falls under fair use.

Most people just use samples from a copyrighted source, which, as long as its attributed, should be perfectly acceptable.

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I would have thought that an excerpt from a linked page would come under "fair use", as long as the whole page isn't copied. Having the relevant paragraph that actually answers the question also guards against "link rot".

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If the content is cited properly, it doesn't need to be removed - maybe just a 'flag for attention' reason instead? It's generally going to help the answer to have a link to the source anyhow.

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