If my words are worth nothing, why are you stealing them?

A few days ago, I noticed that people were sharing around my blog post “Muslim, queer, feminist: it’s as complicated as it sounds” without including my Twitter username. Not a huge deal – they were linking back to my blog, so I was still getting clicks and page views out of it – but it was a little disconcerting (not bad, just disconcerting) to realise that my work was being shared around by people who didn’t even know me and therefore couldn’t directly credit me as the creator.

People keep telling me this is a consequence of “fame” (I wasn’t even aware that I was famous!) – that people will share your work without letting you know about it. I suppose I can live with that, as long as people aren’t just copy-pasting words of mine without any kind of course or attribution…

…which is exactly what happened to me this morning.

I woke up to find that someone was quoting a tweet of mine on Facebook without any mention of me whatsoever, and that people were quoting that Facebook post on Twitter – again, without any mention of me whatsoever. When a follower of mine brought this to my attention (thank you!), I politely requested that the person quoting me attach my name to my words. I think this is a reasonable request. I have a reach on Twitter of about a million users per week. As a writer who doesn’t have a regular column in a broadsheet or on a large website, I rely on my reach to promote my work, so that reach is important. All I did was politely request that my name be attached to my words. I even provided a link to the source so that I could be directly retweeted rather than being quoted.

Five minutes later, my mentions were full of people telling me I was a rude, entitled bitch who didn’t know her place. Nice way to start one’s day.

In academia, quoting without attribution is called plagiarism, and doing it is against both the written and unwritten rules of any reputable institution. So why do people think that on the internet, those rules don’t apply? Writing, no matter how it may seem to non-writers, is work. I’ve been writing constantly since I was a child. I write online; I write in journals nobody else ever sees; I write for business and for pleasure. I write every single day. Writing, like any other skill, takes practice. Even when it comes naturally, polishing one’s work takes time, effort and dedication.

Even microblogging is work, as much as people love to deride “Twitter feminists” and their output. The reason I get retweeted so much to begin with is that I have worked on my ability to reduce thoughts to 140 characters or less, a skill that not everyone has. It’s not too much to ask that other people don’t profit, monetarily or otherwise, from my skills, my work and the contacts and networks I’ve spent time cultivating.

Quoting me without attribution when you’re just quoting someone else who plagiarised me is an honest mistake. I’m sure it happens to me several times a day and I just don’t see it. In this case, however, I did see it, and I politely requested that the person who did it give me credit for my own words. She responded by mocking me, telling me I needed to learn my place and asking her followers to attack me. Suddenly, her mistake didn’t seem quite so honest after all.

This happens to content creators fairly often, but it happens to women – particularly women of colour and other marginalised women – most of all. When we protest, we’re told that our words are worthless and that we should be grateful people care enough to steal them. But I have to ask – if our words are worthless, why steal them at all? If you don’t consider our words and our thoughts valuable, interesting or insightful, why are you taking them and reframing them as your own?

My friend and heroine @thetrudz has spoken at length on Twitter and at her blog, Gradient Lair, about people who mine the content of WoC for things they can use in order to promote themselves and their own brands at the expense of the women from whom they’re stealing. If these people ever bother to defend themselves, their excuse is, “Well, everyone does it. It’s the internet, why do you care so much?” (Indeed, several people I don’t know made sure to tell me exactly that after stealing from me this morning.) But again – why shouldn’t we care? People consider our work worthy enough to steal. Why shouldn’t we care that something of value is being taken from us?

The fact is that our work – our words – do have value. If they didn’t, nobody would steal them in the first place. If people didn’t value my tweets, they wouldn’t go to great lengths to quote those tweets whilst giving as little credit to me as possible (or not crediting me at all). For WoC without large platforms, our personal brands and the networks we cultivate are the only way we have of making our voices heard. When you steal from us, when you deliberately use us as tools to increase your own worth, you are robbing us of the only platforms we have. Theft isn’t innocent – it’s done deliberately and it shows a lack of consideration at best and malice at worst. It’s done either to silence us or to profit off us or both.

It’s not hard to credit authors. It’s not hard to ask permission to use our words. If you think our words are worthless, don’t use them. If you think they’re worth using, don’t steal. Simple as that.


Further reading: @pixiemania started a great discussion about crediting creators on Twitter here.

207 thoughts on “If my words are worth nothing, why are you stealing them?

  1. Reblogged this on CJ's Notebook and commented:
    So sorry you are having to deal with online theft and incivility. I am small time online and have only recently started using Twitter more than one tweet twice a month so I have not personally run across the kind of rudeness you write about but am glad to know how much this happens. Could you maybe re-tweet the stolen tweets and add your Twitter ID?

  2. I’m totally behind you! Those people who called you what they did are just plain rude and probably jealous.

  3. I agree with you on this matter but this is happening everywhere. Its not plagiarism, its stealing. You were a better person to ask politely first because these monsters don’t show respect neither accept their mistake.

  4. I think the cyber world has massively contributed to the decline of basic etiquette and manners. You’re absolutely right, the rules still apply and I greatly appreciated your thoughts on the subject.

  5. Reblogged this on FLOS and commented:
    We just went over plagiarism in my college class so I thought this was a great article that proved the point.
    It’s not that much work to type a few extra characters in order to give someone credit so why do people steal others work? Your thoughts?

  6. I agree with you 100% it is disrespectful. People who are not writers or even writers training would never understand how much stealing someone’s work feels to them. It is like so painful.

  7. I completely agree with you.

    It is disconcerting, it is rude, it is classless, and I even think – insulting, for someone to showcase your intelligence but not giving you the credit it deserves.

    We live in a generation where manners are no longer a priority, the respect for people’s feelings is optional, and compliments are a waste of time. While it is unfortunate, it is also true.

    These days, ignorance is accepted while someone’s work is taken for granted; the bare minimum is appreciated while your best effort may sometimes never be ever enough; being a good person who makes mistakes is easily frowned upon, but being a bad person with no aspirations to become better is defended to no end. It’s harsh, but this is our reality and I think it best explains the ridiculous reactions you got.

    It takes a lot to be a writer. Sometimes the words do just come out, but even then, it’s always up for the chopping block. You strip yourself of any walls or boundaries, and make yourself completely vulnerable not only to things like plagiarism, but to criticism too. We, as individuals who love to write, painstakingly backspace and delete through our emotions, all in an effort to make sure that they are always the best representation of ourselves.

    No one has the right to belittle our work. No one has the right to ever be little you work.

  8. Being successful, as you are, is a two edged sword. It comes with the territory that you will be ripped off, and I’m truly sorry for what happened to you. It shouldn’t be this way.
    I myself have a blog, whose overarching theme is success (www.thexclass.com), and I wouldn’t quite know how to handle plagiarism like this. You were in your right to ask for recognition, and even more right to take this issue to the public. Here’s to justice for you and everyone else who got ripped off.

  9. As a writer I have seen my work reproduced on various website but so far with a link back to the original. I agree, to steal ones written words is just as wrong as stealing their physical property.

  10. I don’t mind being reblogged, but I don’t care for it either when someone scrapes a blog post of mine and tries to pass it off as their own. Ugh.

    If someone tries to pass off Internet text as their own academic paper, there are plagiarism checker sites. There’s also the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

    Maybe in the future, we’ll see less of this plagiarism. I can hope.

  11. It is simply the cowardice of the Internet. People feel more at ease with theft, bullying and negativity while behind a screen rather than face to face.

  12. This is very true. I’m just starting out so nobody really reads my blog yet, let alone quotes it, but if they did I believe that credit should be given. I mean, I would be overjoyed to hear my words being shared. But shared with no reference to me whatsoever? It’s not even a selfish thing or a need for attention, it’s what you worked to write and you should be acknowledged.

  13. I couldn’t agree more! The fact that people responded negatively to you makes me angrier! Writing doesn’t come easy, it comes from places that we don’t show to the world often, we let them spill from our soul. To have someone copy them and not even address you as the person who beautifully strung the words together infuriates me. I honestly hope you get somewhere with this. X

  14. Yes! As a writer, nothing makes me angrier than seeing someone steal words. Even something as simple as via “XYZ” is better than just copy and pasting. And then when you call people out on it, they react with such vitriol. 😦

    -Cee

  15. I would never knowingly share someone’s work without attribution. People share and reblog my work all the time. Once it’s on the web, all bets are off unless we want to spend an enormous amount of time battling case by case. The sharing is bound to happen, but no one should earn one penny from anyone else’s work. I use a lot of art and photographs with my writing. I try to identify the creator. Unfortunately, often I can only say I got it from Google or Pinterest, etc., which is why I’ve significantly reduced this practice. I have slowed down my own public posts for this very reason, too. Wish I knew how to resolve the matter. At any rate, if I were approached about anyone’s work, I would immediately apologize and remove it if they requested that I do so.

  16. I can completely relate. I got top comment on a music video and people were copy and pasting my insight and personal story, claiming it to be theirs. Then nobody knew which was the original…even though it is just comment it was my idea.

  17. Wonderful article about how something as delicate and as fundamental as basic online etiquette has to be preserved and followed. Sometimes it really isn’t all that hard to go that extra bit by simply retracing words to find a quotable source, but maybe to these people it doesn’t really matter.

    But really, it begs the question, what can be done? Such as not asking a woman about her age, not talking with your mouth full, or covering your mouth when you yawn, should we give more due respect to these etiquettes online. If we can do it for a research paper why not do it for our activity anywhere else?

    Something can and must be done, and more emphasis must be allowed for such basic online etiquette to spread. Maybe consider about how we could help do this, and add some constructive criticism?

  18. Hello. I believe you said that well and stated an obviously sad but very true point. I am new to blogging and hope that I never have to encounter this but I do believe that this is becoming more and more popular online.

    It’s plain and simply put as wrong doing.

    Your third last paragraph. Give or take. States the theft from women.

    Quite frankly I don’t believe it matters what size, age, colour or gender you are.

    You are credited for the words you right and no one can take this away from us as writers!

    I will be making my own blog about this today to start an awareness group to stop the spread of this in out newer and present generations.

    I am only fifteen but have a strong belief that I already understand the difference.

    Please come follow my new to come discussion and let’s get this trending world wide!

    Put a stop to plagiarism and copyright!

    • It definitely matters what race and gender you are, because people are more likely to steal from women than men, and more likely to steal from non-white women than white women.

  19. Absolutely true. I almost miss the old days of LiveJournal, when people wrote for themselves and not “Because they’re a writer, lulz”, as it made it easier for people who had taken years to practise and craft their written tone and style were easy to spot, follow and reward. Back then, close-knit communities lacked spite and wide-spread, insta-hate. Sure, women and WoC had a hard ride of things back then, too, but there were places we could retreat to and ways to shut it out without having to log off completely.

    These days, everything is available – and instantly so. Words (and images, videos etc) seem to be not only in the public domain, but OF it, too – so much so that I now write under my own name only for work and in a blog I’ve taken pains to ensure won’t ever be popular. The internet has made better thieves of us.

    I used to think the Internet would be humanity’s gift to itself, used to make people generally smarter and more curious, with the entire wealth of human history, achievement and knowledge just a few clicks away. The truth is, only a few of us approach the web in that way – everyone else just uses it for free stuff, no matter whether its creators intended it to be such or not.

    We all like the notion of an open-sourced internet, with Google saving up and pumping out every book every written, every street ever lived upon and every web page ever written. But, as ever, it’s become a short-cut. Now you don’t even have to know what your opinion is; just hit Twitter, look for a # that catches your eye and, bazam! Someone else’s well-crafted, eloquent opinion is right there ready to go.

    I don’t have your guts, or your determination. I’m happy to step away from it all and leave the masses to their theft and plagiarism. I see no merit in Twitter or Facebook (not needing to reach out to build a loyal readership), and refuse to write for other people online. In many ways, this has freed me.

    But it’s not without a tinge of regret: I still hope that humanity at large will grow up and start behaving properly toward each other, starting with the web.

    Good luck to you and your lovely blog; you’ve made a follower out of me.

  20. *claps in awe* Thank you. I see so many people talking about no credit given, in artwork and in writing, and so many people responding “well you shouldn’t post it if you don’t want it to be copied.” Excuse me? If I were to do a graduate thesis and publish it, am I not entitled to being upset when someone copies it and gives me no credit? Oh, yeah, I’m entitled to it in that case. Why the discrepancy?

  21. Pingback: Plagiat, pembaca, dan penulis | RedboX M.D.

  22. I so agree with you – the person who’s writing it in the first place should also get the credit if someone wants to use it 🙂

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