Lawyers: Don't Plagiarize Content For Your Websites

I am probably the most plagiarized attorney in the history of the Internet. I was an early legal website author, and produced hundreds of articles during the early days of the Internet.

Over the subsequent years, large numbers of people - including a surprisingly large number of lawyers - seemed to view my work as a free-for-all.

Who is Plagiarizing Legal Articles

I have always had a relatively open policy for the use of content from my site, generally allowing people to use my site's content as long as they acknowledge me as the author and link back to my website, but for thousands of people it seems that was far too much to ask. In most cases am not so much bothered by copyright violation itself - the unauthorized but properly attributed use of my articles - as I am by the additional act of plagiarism, the reproduction of my content without attribution.

In searching for unauthorized use of my work, I have found extensive excerpting well beyond fair use, and the reproduction of entire articles, not only on low-quality, unethical sites such as essay writing sites or scraper sites, sites that run scripts to plagiarize other sites' content, but also on the websites and weblogs of attorneys, government agencies, schools and colleges, and book authors. Even an article that I wrote that explains the fair use doctrine has been plagiarized.

I recently found a lawyer who had copied dozens of articles from my site to his weblog, where he presented them as his own work. I asked him to remove the articles and he responded by asking that I prove that I was the author. Here's the funny part: None of the articles on his weblog were original. Every single article that he had posted to promote himself as a lawyer, and was representing as evidence of his skill, was stolen from another website. But it's not just the bottom feeders who plagiarize.

  • I recently found the website of a retired judge and lawyer who, after touting his skill and ethics, reproduced word-for-word an article that I had written on legal malpractice - save, of course, for any acknowledgment that I was the author.

  • I have found my content reproduced on beautiful, expensive websites, and can reasonably infer that the lawyers who paid for those websites also paid their designers hundreds, perhaps thousands of dollars for supposedly creating the content that they simply cut and pasted from my website.

  • I have found lawyers on question and answer sites, such as Avvo and JustAnswer, who cut and paste portions of my articles or entire articles as their "answers", as if they authored my work.

  • I recently found an article that was copied from my website by a lawyer who changed a few words, added a few war stories, and had it published in an ABA section journal.

Copyright violations and plagiarism of legal content are problematic on two fronts:

  • It Can Hurt the Author: Some online content has been reproduced to the extent that it has become essentially valueless. That is, it has become so ubiquitous that the major search engines all-but-overlook the content or even promote plagiarists over the original article.

  • It Rarely Helps the Plagiarist: In the early days of the Internet, duplicate and boilerplate content was relatively commonplace. No more. When a search engine finds content that appears on more than one website, it devalues the content - and if it finds enough copied or duplicate content on a website, it will devalue the entire site.

Why Steal Content When You Could Create Your Own

Lawyers should be aware of how copyright violations and plagiarism can affect their websites, pocketbooks and careers:

  • DMCA Take-Down Notices: The victim of copyright violation may issue a DMCA take-down notice to the attorney's web host, demanding that copied material be removed from the host's server. DMCA notices may also be submitted to search engines, which may drop pages that contain improperly copied material from their search results. Sometimes, even with a take-down request for a single page, the recipient's action will be applied to an entire site.

  • Copyright Litigation: Copyright violations can result in litigation, with the possibility of having to pay statutory damages and attorney fees for willful violations of registered copyrights.

  • Ethical Issues: Lawyers face a special concern that does not extend to most other professions: The question of when copyright violations and plagiarism might become the grounds for attorney discipline. A lawyer's presentation of somebody else's content as their own, or presentation of other people's unattributed work as (supposed) evidence of their own expertise, could potentially be found to violate the rules of professional conduct.

So why do lawyers steal content, or blithely overlook content theft by their website designers?

  • Ignorance: Lawyers aren't aware of how frequently website designers and their contractors plagiarize other websites, and do not exercise due diligence before buying plagiarized content or even allowing their website company to put their name on somebody else's stolen work;

  • Gullibility: Perhaps some lawyers truly believe that a content generation company based in India is producing clear, English language articles that can be purchased for only a few dollars, yet are so high in quality that the lawyer can sign his name to them without having to make a single edit.

  • Indifference: If you see some of the content that appears on legal websites, including content that has been "spun" by a computer program into a semi-literate but supposedly "original" work, you have to recognize that some lawyers simply do not care what goes up on their websites.

  • Laziness: Writing quality legal articles is difficult and time consuming. Stealing articles is cheap and easy.

There is no good reason why a lawyer should plagiarize somebody else's work, and any web design company that attempts to sell to a lawyer content that is plagiarized should be immediately fired.

How to Avoid Being Victimized by Your Web Design Company

In fairness to the lawyers who believe that they are paying for work that is in fact copied from other websites, including my own, some are both unaware of the extent of the problem of plagiarism and have no idea how they would check to see if content is original. If you're not writing your own web content, here are some suggestions to help you avoid being cheated:

  • The Price is Too Good to be True: Good legal content is time-consuming to author, and requires subject matter knowledge. If you are being offered high quality content at a low price, it's probably plagiarized.

  • Exercise Due Diligence: A simple way to see if content has been lifted from another website is to extract a random series of words from the content, enclose it in quotation marks, and search for the words in Google. If the identical phrase shows up, you're almost certainly looking at content that is not original. The test should be run with several excerpts, taken from various points throughout the content. Commercial sites such as Copyscape or Grammarly may assist with plagiarism detection.

  • Get a Contractual Guarantee: Have your web design firm commit in its contract that all content it provides for your website will be original.

  • Cite Your Sources: Some famous authors and writers have been accused of plagiarism in recent years, due to their carelessness while taking notes or copying excerpts of material for their research. If you're writing your own content, make sure you keep proper track of your sources and properly attribute content that you did not create.

Copyright © 2016 Aaron Larson, All rights reserved. No portion of this article may be reproduced without the express written permission of the copyright holder. If you use a quotation, excerpt or paraphrase of this article, except as otherwise authorized in writing by the author of the article you must cite this article as a source for your work and include a link back to the original article from any online materials that incorporate or are derived from the content of this article.

This article was last reviewed or amended on Apr 20, 2018.