Is Plagiarism Ok… If It Was An Accident?

Last year I wrote this handy little script named EasyWP. It makes installing WordPress much easier for those without Fantastico or shell access, and is many times faster than having to upload all of the files individually. It’s very useful, especially if you install WordPress on a regular basis, or if you need to do a complete WordPress reinstall for whatever reason. Lots of people use and enjoy the script.

Today I receive this email from someone by the name of Joel Drapper:

Hey,

I’ve got a little problem.

The other day, I had this great idea to make a single PHP file that downloads, and extracts WordPress to make installing it much easier, and faster. So after I coded it, I asked a few of my friends for suggestions on a name. Most of them said EasyWP which sounded pretty good so I went ahead with it.

That evening, I put together the website (http://easywp.9milesMedia.com), but wasn’t going to launch it till the next morning when I decided what I was going to licence it under, etc. and was tweeting through this process. Then @smashingmag asked me if I could send it to them. I DMed them a link to the website that I’d set up, telling them that I wasn’t launching it quite yet, but they could see it early.

Moments later, my friends told me that he just Googled EasyWP and someone else (you) had made a similar file. I decided that it was probably a good idea to go ahead with my version anyway as I wanted to do a lot more with it then I could see you had done (I wanted to do an ftp version, etc. too in future update), but was going to change the name to something else because you had already used it for your file.

Unfortunately before I could do this, @smashingmag had tweeted a link to my version, and that link has now been retweeted over 100 times. It also ended up getting over 100 delicious bookmarks, and multiple blogs writing about.

I have a method of informing users of updates to the script, and I can set up 301 redirects, etc. but it’s going to be really hard now as it’s so well branded as EasyWP. I was just wondering if maybe you would allow me to keep the name? As I said, I can change it if you really want me to, but I’d rather come to some kind of agreement on this.

I’m sorry for not checking that the name was free earlier.

Thanks for taking the time to read this email.

I look forward to hearing form you.

Have a great day!

The script this guy wrote, at least in it’s current version, is slightly inferior to mine, does the exact same thing, came out a year after mine, and he gave it the same name. The only difference is that he got lucky enough to have @smashingmag to tweet the link for him. As a result, his script is getting a ton of attention. Despite that fact that he discovered that his script, including the name, was basically a direct rippoff of mine, he decides to continue to promote the script:

Since he did state that the whole situation was an accident, I suggested to him what I felt would be the right thing for him to do at this point:

Joel,

Ok, for starters, please stop promoting/tweeting your product until we have hashed this out. Your claims of this being an honest mistake seem much less sincere the more you promote this using the EasyWP name. Honestly, the fact that you didn’t issue a public apology for not researching the concept and the name the moment you discovered that you were plagiarizing, even though you claim it was accidental, surprises me a little. 19 minutes after tweeting that you discovered that the script had already been done and the name used for that exact purpose, you start promoting your script using that name, and you never stopped.

You said that you planned to go further with your script that I did mine, but as it stands currently not only is your script not really any kind of improvement over mine, but additionally it is lacking a couple of features that mine already has built in (such as checking permissions or allowing the user to upload their own version of wp, should they not want to go with the current one). Seeing as that is the case, and seeing as I released mine almost a year ago, this is what I think should happen from here:

1) I think that you should write an apology post for not doing any research before releasing your product, explain how the name was already being used for a near identical script, and how the original script actually has features yours does not. I think you should include in your apology your reasoning, whatever it was, for not letting people know right away and why you instead continued to promote your product without even mentioning mine.

2) Since my script does in fact offer things that yours doesn’t, I think you should simply 301 your current download page to mine.

3) You should ask Smashing Magazine help you get the word out about the original script, seeing as if you actuality did tell them that it was a sneak preview for their eyes only then they should not have tweeted it.

4) In the future if you do write a script with more/better features than mine then yes, I do hope that you use a different name.

Now Joel, obviously I cannot make you do anything, and you will of course do whatever you want. Only your own personal set of ethics will dictate what happens hereon out with this. It’s up to you.

Peace.

-Michael

Joel, however, is unwilling to give up the attention that comes with getting a mention from someone with the prestige of Smashing Magazine’s Twitter account, and all of the subsequent blogging that results from that. He claims he will give it another name, and come clean about what happened, in a few days after he updates the script. I asked him why he wouldn’t fess up now, but he really couldn’t give a good answer for that one, so he just replied that they were “taking this seriously and are actively coding updates, and sorting out the hosting”.

Do I know for a fact that Joel didn’t find my script and decide that passing off a similar one as his own was a good idea? Nope. No way to know those kinds of things. I do know that it took him almost 24 hours to contact me, and that he only did so after the script started to get tons of attention on Twitter. I also know that he refuses to make it right while there is still a large amount of buzz about it. I think that most responsible adults with any concept of business ethics would immediately own up to what happened, drop the script, and find some other idea to develop.

The problem is, Joel Drapper isn’t a responsible adult… he’s a 16 year old kid that is part of a group of 9 other kids aged 13 – 16:

9miles Media is a small, unique graphic & web design group comprised of nine creative teenage entrepreneurs (age 13-16) from all over the world. We adore what we do, and you’ll adore what we can do for you.

So, what do you do in a situation like this? Give them a pass because of their age? Trust their word that it really was an accident, despite their refusal to make it right? Having a hard time figuring this one out myself.

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22 thoughts on “Is Plagiarism Ok… If It Was An Accident?

  1. I think, unfortunately, since the people in question are legally minors you should contact the parents. Hardly guaranteed to have an effect, but the best stance legally.

    If it were me I would continue with blog posts like this one in an attempt to capture and correct some of the buzz.

    That’s a horrible situation, and one that we will need precedents for dealing with as time goes by. Best of luck!

  2. Unfortunately, for all of these children’s US clients. They can violate any and all contracts since it’s illegal to enter into a contract with a child. I think anyone buying 9 miles media services should be aware of that. And until US laws change, holding minors accountable, it would be wise not to do business with them (outside of buying lemonade).

  3. You have an excellent point, but I have an objection to your terminology. It sounds to me like this isn’t so much a matter of plagiarism as it is trademark infringement. Using this name for a year on a similar product may be valid grounds to protect a trademark.

    Joel isn’t trying to pass off your work as his own, which would be plagiarism, he’s just stealing your name.

  4. Bob, plagiarism is “the copying of another person’s ideas, text, or other creative work, and presenting it as one’s own, especially without permission”… at least, that is the definition according to wictionary, and that is my understanding of it as well. This isn’t a different script that performs a different function and just happens to have the same name… it does the exact same thing that mine does.

  5. Michael, SmashingMagazine is a great friend on mine, unfortunately as i type this message he went offline. I am however emailing this page to him with a request to credit the original script too, I know it does not resolve the issue but I would like to see credit where it is due.

  6. James, thank you.

    You also reminded me, this was Joel’s response as to why he didn’t want to let SM know what had happened:

    I’d rather not upset of @smashingmag. I like it when they tweet my
    stuff 😛 I’ll just not tell them about any more of my stuff before I
    launch it.

    Regards,
    Joel Drapper

    Nice, huh?

  7. Michael, I think the key word in the definition is “copying”. The concept of duplication or imitation requires knowledge of the original. If Joel had knowledge of your original work and set out to reproduce it that could be, by definition, considered plagiarism. If the original script was copied, it would definitely be plagiarism. If he is telling the truth and he wrote the script from scratch and gave it the same name all independent of the knowledge of your original work it can’t be plagiarism.

    Semantics aside,the more I think about this,the more foolish it is. We name things for a reason, to uniquely identify them. By stealing your name and not changing it, all he’s doing is hurting himself. Now a Google search turns up two similar projects with the same name. People will be confused and irritated. The smartest thing he could do is change the name immediately just to differentiate the two products.

  8. unfortunately, i didn’t know that there is already such a script in the wild! so i removed all links on my blog post.
    when i have time i will have a look at your script and write a blog post about it 😉

  9. I had something similar happen, (though in a different industry and different category). It hurts both on a personal and a professional level. If you can do nothing else about it, I suggest that you let it go and move on. When today’s momentum is not with you, it just feels bad to you, and it looks sad to your friends.

    I do recommend, however, using your wit and skill to forge ahead with something quite new. You are the creative talent that originated the thing in the first place. Since you’ve documented this incident quite well, I’d recommend getting your momentum going so you have the authority, should the past issue ever rise again. Then you can tell your side of the story.

    For me, that’s what I’m doing. My truth is with me alone, and I hadn’t the right platform to really tell my side of the story. I’m patient and professional. I’m working hard to get traction with my new stuff. I’m letting go of the old stuff which was taken from me and abused. The whole thing in the past will no longer plague me when it becomes trivialized to both my audience and inner feelings about it.

    Best wishes,
    Disa Johnson

  10. IMHO his age makes it even more important not to go too easy on him. He’s growing up, figuring out how he will be doing business in the future.

    I don’t like that he does not open his communication with you with an apology. He could have and should have Googled prospective names, before deciding on one. That’s just common sense, no matter what age he is, and I doubt he’ll forget next time!

    By asking if he could keep the name, since @smashignmagazine has already tweeted it, he shows that he understands social media’s distribution system, but not the accountability that must go along with making connections online. This online system we are part of blesses us with much transparency!

    Kudos to you for standing up for yourself and providing this open discussion, and kudos to him for, I hope, learning some hard lessons about networking and reputation management in a digital age.

  11. Funny you mention accidental plagiarism.

    Just a week or so ago I found an article thief and asked him to link to the original article (or mention that I wrote the article and link to a few other pages on my site). The thief replied that he had the links, but during content reorganization, he somehow lost them.

    I’m not sure how it’s possible to lose only a part of the content, if you organize WP, but it seems that ignorance of existence of the copyright holder seem to bear close resemblance to the ignorance of any existing copyright rights and issues.

    Oh btw, as far as I recall, Joel *leads* a teen company, has had a few successes and – as far as I understand – is well into the tech social circle. I wouldn’t insist on this, but if stretching it, it seems like he might’ve chosen to outpromote your plugin, hoping his contacts/social mojo would be enough to make his plugin visible, while others would ignore your plugin. Quite a popular tactic on social voting websites: using powerful profiles to make popular stories that were submitted and didn’ get traction. Just guesstimating here.

  12. I think Joel has become aware of the ripple effect his actions have created. I would be willing to guess that youth and inexperience are to blame here rather than malice, but either way transparency is forcing itself into the equation now.

    Once something is out there it is impossible to get rid of it. The discussions around this incident will be archived online in perpetuity. Now if Joel can learn from this and move forward, gaining valuable lessons in transparency and integrity, he will be in great shape. If not I fear for his rep by the time he’s 20.

    I encourage both side to continue keeping us posted in the comments here as things progress.

  13. Hi Michael,

    Firstly, I’d like to apologise for the controversy that has arisen over the two scripts- the existence of similar scripts should have checked before Joel’s EasyWP was written.
    I’m very sorry Joel’s integrity is being questioned in this way; I assisted him in writing a few functions in his script, and I am the friend mentioned in his email who found your script. It was very unlucky that @smashingmag tweeted about Joel’s script just after we’d googled for EasyWP and discovered the existence of your script.

    I, and several others with whom Joel has spoken in the last few days, will be willing to testify that he did not knowingly plagiarise your script.
    If you compare the source code of both scripts, there are several differences – yours only works on *NIX-based servers because of its use of tar, rm and mv. Joel’s, however, ought to work on both Windows and *NIX. In addition, Joel’s script uses a different function to download the latest version of WordPress (file_get_contents).

    Having spoken to Joel yesterday evening, we’re planning to take his script in a different direction completely and release it under a different name. Joel has built in an update mechanism to his script so that any further changes we make will be easily propagated.
    I agree that the name should have been changed earlier, but it was somewhat difficult due to the number of tweets and website visits we’d received.

    Hope we can find a clear way through these issues.
    Regards,

    Donald Harvey

  14. I agree that the name should have been changed earlier, but it was somewhat difficult due to the number of tweets and website visits we’d received.

    Since when does more traffic have to be a bad thing?

    If I were Joel, right now, ASAP, before ANYTHING else, I’d replace the original landing page with a four-paragraph mini-history & resource version. Focus on the good about the scripts, but also acknowledge what happened.

    The first paragraph would *very* briefly point out the difference between the two, and confirm that Joel’s script has (I hope!!) just been re-named. Next would come two more paragraphs: an annotated link that leads to the original EasyWP, followed by another that links to your new script.

    At the bottom of the page you could have a *brief* apology for the confusion and oversight, plus few links that tell the story of this story, with very brief annotation if needed. A link to this post on smackdown would be a good.

    Meet that sometimes-uncomfortable transparency with generosity.

  15. Could he not edit the original page crediting you as the original author and link to your page. Then you would both share in the traffic. Regardless of age, plagiarism is plagiarism.

  16. I think that Joel’s response may be a bit immature. From what I gather he had original script, but the name was plagiarized? If so, the second he heard of it he should have changed the name. Domains are less than 10$ these days, it would have cost him nothing to switch domains. And regarding the traffic, all he had to do was confess, link back to your site and redirect his traffic to a new page with the plugin using a distinct name.

    Sorry for this inconvenience.

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