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Plagiarism: No cure, but there is hope.

In what has to be an all-time low in internet scammery, there appears to be a bevy of bandits intent on stealing whatever they can via the web. These guys aren't as much into credit card fraud as they are into stealing web content. If you've ever spent a few thousand hours hacking away at your own digital baby, you know how frustrating it is to see your work on someone else's website.

Let me tell you: it sucks.

The worst part is that, unlike credit card fraud, there's no real dollars and cents damage that can be assessed, so there's really no report you can file with the local constable. In fact, there's hardly anyone you can complain to. So web theft goes unpunished, largely because it's so unprovable, but also because it's not nearly as sexy as, say, hunting down international diamond thieves or nailing the latest set of millionaire kids who have bumped off their parents.

But maybe that's okay. Maybe we're just all a little bit tired of going through the system to find justice. Maybe we should look at this problem a little less like Barney Fife and little more like Charles Bronson. Yeah, that's it. So let's put together a nice little package that can trap even the most annoying of web thieves. Keep in mind that none of these tips alone can do very much, but working in concert, they can nail almost anyone, anywhere.

1. KEEP GREAT RECORDS. Next to keeping a loaded gun, keeping track of what you produce and when you produced it is arguably the best antidote to digital pilfery known to man. It also happens to be a lot easier and less messy than using a gun, because your computer does almost all the work for you, time-stamping the creation date of just about everything. Sure, your average web thief can always set his clock to some weird creation date, but the chances of that are relatively slim. After all, this guy's a thief. He's lazy. If he weren't lazy, he'd be busy working, instead of stealing, right? So do yourself a favor and keep a nice tidy archive of everything you create. If you've got a burner handy, sear those digital suckers into a CD-ROM where the manufacturer guarantees the data for 100 years. In the event of a lawsuit, the judge will smile kindly upon you.

2. SET A DECENT TRAP. Look, if it works for cops, it might as well work for you. I'm no lawyer, but I do have an advanced degree in sneakiness. My sources tell me that you really have to get the goods on a plagiarizer if you want to nab him. In many cases, the way to do that is to get the thief to copy something that you know is there, but is so well hidden that the thief copies it unknowingly. Whatever you decide to hide should be indelibly identifiable as yours and one of the best examples that I can think of are graphic files.

While software manufacturers like Digimarc offer you all kinds of neat ways to weave your watermark into graphic files, I personally prefer the cheaper, good old fashioned "Let Me Show You The Parts I Used to Build It" technique. For example, if someone rips off a graphic of mine, I can show possession of the original layered Photoshop file from which the site graphic was created. I mean, it's easy to drag a GIF file from my web site, but let's just see how well a thief can reverse engineer the master Photoshop file. Hah!

3. STAKE 'EM OUT. One thing you should NEVER do is contact the offender and ask him to please stop stealing. Yeah, that works. Just like in real life, when you politely ask the guy sticking the gun in your ribs to please not rob you. Come on, people, THE GUY STOLE FROM YOU. YOU GONNA TAKE THAT? Of course not. Wise up. If you suspect you're being ripped off, DON'T contact the offender -- stake him out. Make it a daily practice of archiving the thief's pages over time, and wait patiently until the stolen goods are displayed. Keep archiving the pages and you may even be able to establish a pattern of thievery. Once you have that, you have a much better chance of proving your case.

4. DON'T THREATEN A LAWSUIT. Threats? THREATS? Hey, did this guy THREATEN to steal from you? No. So why you should you threaten a lawsuit? You know what these guys do with letters that threaten lawsuits? I'll tell you what they do: they stick them up on the wall and point their fingers at them and laugh. Then they photocopy them and trade them over grape sodas with the rest of their pointy-headed friends. Hey, if you really want vengeance, er, justice, dispense with the formalities and sick your pit bull lawyer on him with no warning. I know, lawyers don't work for free, but you can bet that one hour's worth of "search and replace" ought to be enough to customize the even the most boring boilerplate into a tailor-made terror.

5. PLAY TO THE EGO. Most of these losers spend all too much time alone, which should give you a clue as to the type of brain you're dealing with. Still, you're going to need to get a name and address to serve the guy his papers. If you can't track the creep down through 411, White Pages or some other sleuthing service, you can always play to the guy's ego: send him an e-mail or call him on the phone and construct some wild scheme about how you want to send him money.

I know, it sounds dumb, but it works. One of the easiest methods is to call and say, "I have a check here that must have been delivered to the wrong address -- are you (NAME OF CREEP)?" Honest to aces, this one works about 90% of the time. If that doesn't do it, try e-mailing a sincere note that pours on the compliments about his web site. mention that you would really like to buy a banner or sponsor a page. Tell him you're ready to pay him up front.

You think he's NOT going to give you an address?

Hey, he's the thief. He's the dummy, not you. Unless, of course, you continue to do nothing about it.

©1997, Rob Frankel

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