Professional Family History

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Copycat Stalker

In the world of professional genealogy when someone talks about a "copyright issue" it usually refers to identification of copyright holders, for the supply of copies of original documents to clients or publishers, not our own copyrighted material.

However, I have recently been subjected to an issue of website plagiarism. We all look at the websites of other genealogists when starting up a business, gauging what we like and do not like and how to position ourselves in the market. I have found a few pages in the last few years where a paragraph or two has been lifted and reworded. This in itself was frustrating but not to a scale that I felt warranted any action on my part.

The issue I have had that has prompted me to write this piece was with a so-called fellow "professional" repeatedly taking ideas from my website and passing them off as their own. 

Sections of my website were lifted and reworded slightly on a regular basis over the last eighteen months or so. Paragraphs were not necessarily lifted intact but the ideas, page names, page content, my approach to research and the way I have laid out my background all featured on the "other" website. This happened on a regular basis. Each time I updated my website I would wait with baited breath to see changes on the "other" website within a couple of months. I had a copycat stalker!

To be honest, when it started I thought I was imagining it. It is only when I started looking for changes after I had updated my site that I realised it was a real issue. I also started noticing similarities in the social networking profiles of the website owner. My fairly recently created Google+ page was apparently used as the basis for my competitor's later page, right down to an almost identical background image, until I had a mini moan on Twitter about plagiarism. 

Things came to a head when last month changes were made such that a single page of mine had been almost exactly copied and a photograph I had taken was reproduced. The point that concerned me the most was this: with the level of similarity on the pages concerned, how would a potential client know that it was not me that was the copycat?

My professional reputation was now at risk and it was time to take action. Even so, I felt like I needed confirmation that it was not all in my head so asked some trusted fellow genealogists to take a look at both websites. All agreed the similarities were there. Fortunately I keep copies of old versions of my website and, with copies of both websites, had a trail with dates showing "who was first".

I'm fairly certain that I have not lost work over this per se but I have lost hours that I could have been working having to constantly check and collect copies of both webpages. I was so cross at the principle of it all. I spend a great deal of time writing my wording on my website, for example, my family tree packages have been honed over the years based on experience, and yet someone, clearly incapable of original thought, decided it was acceptable to come along, take what they like and pass it off as their own work.

Fortunately it has not been a long or drawn out process to effect change. The frustrating part for me is that I know that there is still material on the "other" website that is based on iterations of my own website, but for much of this the wording has been changed sufficiently that it would be difficult for an outside observer to detect the similarity. What is interesting is that there were areas of the "other" website that had no similarity to my own at all, offering different services. It does leave me wondering how much of the rest of the content was based on websites of others. I sincerely hope the individual concerned will think twice before behaving the same way again. 

Warning! This could happen to you too.

What saddens me is the more I have raised the issue on the social networking sites the more examples I have found of the same behaviour. 

One website owner has suffered so many times at the hands of copycats that he was able to send me a lengthy step by step action plan when I asked for the benefit of his experiences. Two other genealogists have detailed to me the exact same "copycat stalker" type behaviour and I was comforted to hear one of the two talk of paranoia and thinking they were imagining things until confirmed by others.

Many others have spoken of images being taken and used elsewhere, articles written and reproduced. The list goes on.  

What is particularly irritating about the copycat stalker is that the examples I have heard are all local competitors. This really makes no sense to me and I can only assume it happens due a lack of original thought on the part of the offenders. Of course we all look at our competitor websites but does it not make better business to sell ourselves as different to our competition, defining our "unique selling point" or USP?

In an environment where we all describe ourselves as "professionals" this kind of behaviour is totally unacceptable and gives the rest of us a bad name. I for one will be keeping an eye out for any new offences.

Do be warned. Watch carefully. You could be the next victim of the copycat stalker...


  1. Dear Karen!
    My previous comment appeared:(. So: as a lawyer and a proffessional genealogist, I can tell You, that Your webpage contents are under copyright protection. If You have your own search method, or any other methods which not became a common treasure yet, that called Know -How. You have to post a declaration of intellectual property rights on the website. Than you can turn to the court, and/or starting a criminal prosecution.

  2. I think if you 're both members of the same 'Professional Association' a word to the council might be an idea -see if you can sort it out internally.