Even Accidental Plagiarism Can Cost You

Jan. 20, 2010
Not only can plagiarism cost your company; it can cost you, your company. That’s right; you can lose your company over plagiarism, even without malicious intent on your part.

Not only can plagiarism cost your company; it can cost you, your company. That’s right; you can lose your company over plagiarism, even without malicious intent on your part.

As a small business owner, you should be careful who you trust, take advice from, and allow your technicians to be influenced by. Not only do you want to limit liability for your company, but you want to ensure your honest company is being guided by honest consultants.

With the Internet, plagiarism is on the rise. In the HVAC industry, plagiarism is rampant.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property. It's far worse than downloading pirated music off a file sharing service. Plagiarism is more like downloading the music, claiming you wrote and performed it, and publishing and/or selling it.

The unmitigated, unrepentant continuing practice of plagiarism by a few industry bad eggs - no, they’re rotten eggs - is finally too compelling to ignore. Read this from start to end. Take care to ensure you are personally protected and your company is protected.

Matt Michel on Detecting Plagiarism in the Old Days…

When I was starting up a franchise organization, my boss hired a couple of people to write an operations manual. As the material came in, I thought it was pretty good.

As chance would have it, I recognized a dual overhead write up. It came from a trade association manual. We started looking at the material more closely. Mike Hajduk noted that a maintenance checklist came from a popular industry consultant. Tom McCart pulled out an operations manual from a then-expired franchise group and noted word-for-word similarities.

I had visited the people who were hired to prepare the material. One of them showed me his hand written notes that he was about to give to a typist. I remember marveling that anyone could write something so complex, so well, by hand, using ink on paper, without scratch outs. It turns out he didn't. He simply copied it word-for-word and gave it to a typist.

The only reason someone would copy a printed page by hand, to give to a typist, is that he knew it was wrong. Yet, he did it anyway.

If our group wasn't comprised of people who had been around the block in the industry, we never would have caught on. We might have published the material as the company's work product. It would have created a tremendous legal liability if that happened. Our legitimate protestations of ignorance would not have mattered. Our reputations would have been tarnished forever.

Ignorance Is No Excuse

Plagiarism has been caught, exposed, and litigated in the HVAC industry. The employee of a manufacturer wanted to help his "dealers." He encouraged them to mail out a direct mail letter he thought was particularly effective.

They did, and the organization that owned the copyright for the letter sued the manufacturer.

The employee wasn't acting maliciously or with criminal intent. He was ignorant of the copyright laws and the pickle he was making for his employer. Ignorance and intent are not mitigating circumstances. He was, in essence, trafficking in stolen intellectual property.

Detecting Plagiarism Today

It's far easier to detect plagiarism today than in the past. All you need is a computer with an Internet connection and you can catch most attempts to “Rob & Duplicate” the work of another.

The Service Roundtable routinely uses independent copywriters and graphics designers. Whenever they submit work, the copy and images are searched for on the Internet to make certain they aren’t using the intellectual property of others or infringing on copyrights. Sadly, that occasionally is the case. When it happens, the content never sees the light of day and the copywriter never gets another project.

The Service Roundtable is a company with specific procedures to guard against the use of plagiarized material. Most contracting companies lack similar safeguards.

How do you know when it's okay to copy another's intellectual property? You ask. Otherwise, assume it's not.

You cannot copy text written by others without permission. You cannot copy images without a license. Don't steal, and don't borrow without permission.

Here’s where it gets tricky. How do you know you’re getting permission from the original author and not someone who has plagiarized the work of someone else? At the very least search a few key phrases or sentences by Google.


The legal costs of lawsuits run into six figures. The fines and settlements can be even higher.

Aside from legal action, there are other more serious consequences from plagiarizing or using pirated material. The Digital Copyright Millennium Act (DCMA) protects intellectual property.

If you host plagiarized material online, an infringed copyright holder can progressively notify your web host, data center, or site registrar, resulting in the removal of your website. Try to circumvent the process by using an offshore host and you might find your site banned from search engines.

Avoiding the Amoral

By and large, the vast majority of manufacturer employees, distributor employees, industry consultants, contractors, and technicians in the industry are honest and well intentioned. This is a GOOD industry. It's an HONEST industry. It's a MORAL industry.

Yet, we've got our amoral players. Sadly, they include those who presume to help and guide contractors and technicians. These are dishonest individuals who lack original thought, copy whole books in-toto from others, and sell them to contractors as their own, for more than the original costs.

These are people who put those they're purportedly trying to help at risk by providing them with stolen intellectual property.

The world has a way of balancing. Things will eventually catch up with our industry's lowest elements. Hopefully, you won't get caught in their wake of deceit and dishonesty and get hit with enough legal expenses, fines and punitive settlement fees to bankrupt your company.

How can you avoid the amoral? Often their reputations precede them. Certainly, the good folks in the trade press know things you do not.

Not only is plagiarism especially insidious to journalists, the consequences of plagiarism by journalists are greater. These informed industry experts will not take unnecessary chances. The trade magazines are intensely competitive. Good writers will be picked up by one national publication if avoided by another.

If a prolific writer is unable to generate ink in the industry's major trade magazines, you should wonder why.

While the trade press is competitive, editors and publishers talk. They're well positioned to know who can be trusted to deliver authentic, original copy and concepts, and who cannot. If all national trade publications appear to deny someone ink, it might be an indication that the trade press will not trust the writer. If the trade press does not trust the writer, you shouldn’t either. Remember, even accidental plagiarism can cost you.

Charlie Greer is the creator of Tec Daddy’s Service Technician Survival School on DVD and Slacker’s Guide to HVAC Sales on Audio CD. Visit Charlie on the web at www.hvacprofitboosters.com, call him at 1-800-963-HVAC (4822) or email him at [email protected].

Matt Michel is the CEO of the Service Roundtable and an active practitioner of social media. Email him at [email protected] for a FREE subscription to his ezine, read his blog at ComancheMarketing.com, connect with him on Linked In and Plaxo, become his Facebook friend, become a Facebook Fan of the Service Roundtable, and follow him on Twitter at @ComancheMktg. Or, you can call him toll free at 877/262.3341 or his mobile at 214/995.8889.