We’ve Gone Full Circle – How Viral Content Gets Scraped and Re-purposed

One trend in content marketing that’s been popular for some time now involves scraping the web for unique and engaging content and then repurposing it for use on a different channel. In some ways, this is safe to do, yet in others, it can cause quite a bit of harm – read, plagiarism.

Of course, if we just glance over any trending headline we’ll find that even some of the most reputable publications on the web re-purpose each others’ content. They twist words around, take quotes from other publications, and package everything into their own brand sandbox. It’s essentially the web standard for content when fresh ideas, breaking news, and investigative journalism pieces are scarce. The type of writing that lends itself to be more original will always be more difficult and time-consuming. Think about technical guides – the dozens of pages and visuals that go into guiding a new user through a foreign piece of technology. Longform content like technical guides become more than a simple data gathering quest. They require real knowledge and experience that can be translated to help any greenhorn. At the 2013 Best Practices Writing Conference there were three big takeaways for technical writers: be human, be clear, and be everywhere.

Technopedia defines “content scraping” as “an illegal way of stealing original content from a legitimate website and posting the stolen content to another site without the knowledge or permission of the content’s owner. Content scrapers often attempt to pass off stolen content as their own and fail to provide attribution to the content’s owners.”

The “illegal” method is used often by content curation platforms and spammers, occasionally with proper attribution and other times without it. It begs the question, aside from using scraping software, how far can one go when repurposing content for his or her own website or channel? Is it okay to borrow ideas, quotes and content?

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It Happens All the Time

Believe it or not, content scraping and repurposing happens all the time, and it’s not confined to independent sites either. Take a look at this year old post on Reddit, for example. It discusses how Halloween costumes get much more risqué as the audience age increases –  to the point where older costumes show a lot of skin. Buzzfeed borrowed the content and published it on their site, almost verbatim. Interestingly enough, it recently showed back up on Reddit.

full circle example

As you can see, the scraping and repurposing came full circle in that case. Of course, the Buzzfeed article did provide attribution, but was it wrong to post the exact same content? Is it even worse that Buzzfeed is such a prominent site?

When it comes to content such as this, it’s not really such a big issue. Content published on a social forum or network like Reddit is handled very differently. The original poster is not relying on SEO rankings or a connected revenue stream. In addition, the content in question – while unique – is not custom created. That is, it’s not an original piece of work from the author – /u/kpthunder – it is simply a compilation of images he sourced from around the web.

In addition, like-minded content creators can see beforehand whether or not content will perform well. It’s sort of an added bonus to scraping social content. They can piggyback off the original post’s success.

To many people this seems like a horrible phenomena that needs to be eradicated. Others realize this is simply the nature of any publishing content on a minute-to-minute basis. But I’d wager that most people simply do not care – they just consume, share, and move on. Compilations, lists, and run-downs are one side of the viral-equation. On the other side we find heart-string players, exaggeration, and anything politically/racially/sexually shocking.  Ironically, the majority of these pieces are not newsworthy in the honest/practical idea of newsworthiness.

When Is it Wrong?

It is wrong when it involves absolute plagiarism. The concept of plagiarism permeates several mediums, including text, videos, audio and even images. If you take someone’s original work without providing the appropriate attribution and references – it’s wrong and illegal. It’s not just about providing the proper attribution, either. You cannot just clone or copy someone’s work.

This is not to be confused with repurposing content. At least when it comes to text, a new writer can take the ideas presented and re-deliver it with a unique spin. In this way, the repurposed content is still unique, provided the new author does not copy the original work word for word. The same can be true of videos or images.

Recently, IGN included a community clip of Monster Hunter 4 in their official coverage. The problem is, the footage was from an independent YouTuber and the game media giant did not provide the proper attribution. This was remedied later when IGN added a link to the original author, and eventually pulled the video down.

That doesn’t change the fact that – even if it was accidental – stealing someone else’s work is unethical and wrong. Of course, this one came back full circle too, because the original poster shared his video clip to bring attention to the content theft. A big takeaway from this which can be applied to any situation where we are borrowing or re-purposing information from another content creator, is to reach out to them. Ask for permission if the content is an original creation and be sure to cite or link to sources.

How Can You Be Sure Your Repurposed Content Is Acceptable?

Taking a look at the first example again, that’s the kind of repurposed content you’ll want to stick with if you’re going the scrape for existing material. In that case, how can you be sure the content you’re using is acceptable? Here are some basic rules to follow.

  • Do not copy any portion of the content, repurpose everything you plan to use and actually think about it through your own lens or apply it in a new context
  • Along the same vein, write in your own tone and central purpose
  • When it comes to images, you can use the existing content as a template, but you need to find your own image – unless you’re using stock or Creative Commons material. If you absolutely need/want an image someone else rightfully owns, then send them a friendly email first. Chances are they’d be happy to have you share it if you attribute them in some way.
  • Run your repurposed article or content through a plagiarism checking tool, there are plenty that can be found with a simple web search
  • Always provide attribution, which includes a mention of the original author along with a link to their work
  • If you’re using a content scraper, a direct link to the original material is necessary

Don’t Be a Content Thief

While curating content, be sure to follow the tips listed above to stay out of trouble. The last thing you want is to be labeled a thief in the world of content marketing.

A good way to prevent your own content from being scraped is to set up your Google authorship information. You can also subscribe to various tools which will send email alerts when a third-party site links back to your content.

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Jesse Aaron

I'm a blogger, homebrewer, and community manager. Aside from writing, I have a passion for music and design.

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