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Stealing Ideas and Social Media

by Randall Craig on April 11, 2014

Filed in: Blog, Communication, Content, Make It Happen Tipsheet

Tagged as: , , ,

In grade one, we were told no cheating. In grade six or seven, we learned about plagiarism. By high school, we learned about citations, attribution, and the importance of quoting the source.

In today’s world of social media, have these rules changed?  Sadly, there seems to be a range of experience and practices for content that is used in a blog, without permission:

  1. A quoted sentence or paragraph with the name of the author and a link to the source
  2. A quoted sentence or paragraph, with the name of the author, but no link
  3. A quoted sentence or paragraph, with an anonymous attribution
  4. A sentence or paragraph directly plagiarized

Most people would agree that option (1) – a name and a link – is the best case: it is a full attribution, and allows the reader to verify the quote in context. It also allows the original author to see where their ideas are being used. Most people would also agree that (4) is improper, and possibly illegal – it’s stealing. (3) is almost as bad: the person is not claiming the quote as their own, but provides zero credit to the original author – at best, they are lazy. But what about (2)? In this case, the person does provide attribution, but omits the link. This is selfish: they don’t want the reader to leave their site, and they refuse to reward the source of the idea with an inbound link.  This approach also is a disservice to their readers: it is impossible to see the quote in the original context.

With Twitter, it becomes murkier. Consider the following:

  1. A Tweet quoting another person including their Twitter handle
  2. The same Tweet, but without the Twitter handle

In the first case, there is attribution – all is well. In the second case, there is none – the content appears to belong to the person sending the Tweet. This is plagiarism, plain and simple.

But perhaps not so simple: What if a person is live-tweeting a speech? They include the event’s hashtag (which generates exposure), but do not include the speaker’s Twitter handle. Is this plagiarism? Or if the first Tweet includes the Twitter handle, perhaps it is a clever way to convey more content as the event is being live-tweeted?

If someone is following the entire event and the presenter’s Twitter handle is included in the first Tweet, would this be acceptable?  The first Tweet is merely the first sentence in a longer paragraph: the ideas within the entire paragraph belong to the person identified. Unfortunately, this only applies when someone is following the entire thread.

What if someone starts following partway through the live Tweet? What happens when that brilliant thought is Retweeted? The reader is led to believe that the Tweet is that of the Tweeter – not the presenter. Plagiarism. And what should the presenter think when they see their words being used without attribution?

It is rare indeed that a person who is live-tweeting sets out to steal other’s ideas: in fact, it is usually quite the opposite. But their good deed has unwittingly exposed them to one of the many new social media ethical grey zones. While the communication channels have changed from what we were taught in grade one, the rules haven’t: If you use other’s ideas, you still need to quote, attribute, and link to the source.

This week’s action plan: While it is impossible to edit a Tweet after it has been sent, blog posts can be uploaded. This week, scan through your social posts, and properly attribute others’ ideas with a link back to the source. Then add this requirement to your organization’s social media and editorial policies.

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Randall Craig

@RandallCraig (follow me)
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Randall has been advising on Web and Social Strategy since 1994 when he put the Toronto Star online, the Globe and Mail's GlobeInvestor/Globefund, several financial institutions, and about 100+ other major organizations. He is the author of seven books, including the recently released "Everything Guide to Starting an Online Business", and speaks across North America on Social Media and Web Strategy. More at and

{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Nancy Myrland April 11, 2014 at 2:08 pm

Hi Randall…nice to meet you in-person last week. I don’t know about you, but I’m still catching up!

Your post is very interesting. Part 1 about blog posts is a bit easier to wrap my arms around as I try to always give credit to those I am quoting in my blog posts. I go a bit out of my way to find bios of people I am referencing to try to give readers someone to look up if they’d like. I am cautious, however, because mentioning 5 people or publications in one paragraph can get sloppy and “salesy” if everything has a link. We have to take these on a case-by-case basis, and try to do the right thing.

Part 2 of your post is more challenging because it appears as though the lack of attribution in every Tweet has caused quite a bit of consternation on your part. I’m sorry for that as you are, obviously, bothered. As you know, we are all challenged with typing 140 characters, or fewer than that if we want to leave room for a Twitter handle on the ReTweet, so best practices tend to be different from user to user. Do I use a Twitter handle and hashtag when I live-Tweet? Yes, I do, but that doesn’t mean my way is the best way. It’s just my way. You asked if simply using the conference hashtag at the onset would be sufficient. It could be for some because most on Twitter who are following hashtags have the understanding that a presentation, speech, keynote, webinar, etc., is what is being referenced. I typically go back in the hashtag stream to see what event the person is Live-Tweeting. I’ve also had people Tweet me to ask what the hashtag stands for, and what the event is. I love that kind of interaction as that is what this is all about.

One of my best practices is to include, in lighter color so as not to intrude too much, the hashtag and my Twitter handle on the bottom of nearly every slide I use in my presentations. It appears as though it is part of the template. I also have a fairly standard slide about 2 slides in that talks about Live-Tweeting, and giving the hashtag and my Twitter handle if they are Live-Tweeting, and even mention that “I am, of course, thrilled if you choose to do so.”

My philosophy is always that if I expect someone to help me market me, then it is my responsibility to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. I attend way too many webinars where I have no idea who the presenter is because I might have logged on, or entered the room, a smidge too late, and missed the one reference to his/her Twitter handle. Had the presenter included it on every slide, my job of promoting that person (which really isn’t my job, but my choice) would have been much easier. As presenters, we need to give our audiences what they need, and our information throughout is a simple addition.

I always find that I am thrilled someone thinks I’ve actually said something worth repeating, sharing or Live-Tweeting! I will be amazed the day someone actually assigns the word “brilliant” to my words, and will likely include them in my will if they ever do! :-)

I certainly don’t think anyone is doing anything malicious, or infantile, when not giving me credit in every live Tweet. I’m happy to see the hashtag that people can refer back to, and thrilled when I do see my Twitter handle mentioned. Yes, it would be a lovely best practice to include our Twitter handles whenever possible, but I also understand everyone has their own style.

Now…scraping content from my blog, or using my words directly without a hashtag or attribution….then we need to talk!

Thanks for the conversation. I’m sure our paths will cross again.


Randall Craig April 11, 2014 at 3:37 pm

Nancy, a thoughtful response, thanks for chiming in.

Actually, I am thrilled (and humbled) when someone decides to live-tweet one of my presentations, quote one of my blog posts, or references any of my resources. I know the challenge that with 2-3+ hashtags AND a twitter handle there is far less room for real content, but my practice is to always err on the side of attribution, and this means using the source within the Tweet whenever possible – even if it means removing secondary hashtags.

I agree, 99% of the people who omit are not doing anything malicious – quite the opposite. And yes, omitting the @name may just be their style… or they may not have considered this issue: hence the reason for the post. The challenge, however, is that when a third party searches Twitter and finds a mid-stream tweet without attribution, the quote is too easily attributed to the Live-Tweeter, not the presenter.

I think that there is another challenge, but it is a bit more of an inconvenience than anything else. I will spend a few hours after my presentation responding to tweets; unless I have a presentation-specific hashtag, there is no easy way to find the tweets pertaining to my session. When I am the keynote speaker, this isn’t a problem, because there are no other sessions that are in progress and I can use the conference hashtag. When I am a concurrent session speaker though, using the conference hashtag means sifting through many, many, other tweets. A first-world problem for sure, but when there is attribution this is never an issue.

Am I right on attribution? Well, I have thought through it, and I do have a perspective. But I also respect that other people (and organizations) also have theirs. And that there is always more for me to learn.


Ann Lee Gibson April 11, 2014 at 2:09 pm

My two cents’ worth … I believe people know when they’re reading tweets that include a conference hashtag that those tweets are conference speakers’ remarks. It’s usually obvious from the first session tweets who the speaker was and their topic — so even tweets have context. My own Twitter handle @annleegibson takes up 13 characters, so I’d rather people use those characters to share my content.


Randall Craig April 11, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Thanks for your three cents’ worth! Just goes to show you that there are always multiple perspectives.


Lisa Dutton April 13, 2014 at 1:58 pm

You’ve posed some great questions and opened a really interesting conversation, but I take exception to some of your conclusions.

As you said, plagiarism, by definition, requires the element of attempting to represent the idea or statement as one’s own. The conference hashtag, at a minimum, makes that open to interpretation, if not obvious. For those of us of a certain age or academic background, it is, in practice, the Twitter version of ibid. Thus, the ethics are the same, but the rules for application are, in fact, channel dependent.

I left their industry years ago, but I’ll point out that Nancy and Ann were then and remain among the most trusted, respected and beloved players in it. @NancyMyrland is a pioneer in technology and social media. @AnnLeeGibson was one of the first to implement relationships as the foundation of business development. Not surprisingly, they both benefit from referrals, endorsements, hiring decisions and attributed quotes from those of us who were and are the recipients of their intellectual and professional generosity, sometimes years later. The Internet may be instantaneous, but trust (and relationships) are still built on the expectation of behaviour over time.

Standing on their shoulders, I’ll add this: It’s social media, not commercial media. The audience is not your sales force. From the perspective of the audience and the Twitterverse, it’s not about you, it’s about the content. So if your session is around a central Big Idea, create #BigIdea. Make it short, your audience will use it and people will engage with it. If your session includes several smaller conclusions, #conclusion1 and #conclusion2, same idea.

Better for you that the world asks “what’s the name of that BigIdea guy?” than says “@RandallCraig spoke on social media,” yes?


Randall Craig April 13, 2014 at 3:21 pm

Thanks Lisa for your comments!

A few points of clarification: I have no disrespect for Nancy or Ann Lee; many of the very same concepts have also formed the basis of the consulting I have done in the legal marketing field for the last 25 years.

Sadly, I am of the age to remember ibid. For those who are following a Twitter conversation, absolutely I agree with your point. For those who are later searching Twitter, where the tweet is shown on its own, not so sure. I don’t think the matter is completely settled – hence the need to have these types of conversations. (Interestingly, in the emails I’ve received, the writers have felt very strongly about either one side or the other – half/half.)

I absolutely don’t see the audience as a sales force – inappropriate and unprofessional. I am not sure if you were in my session or not, but it was completely about the application of strategic marketing models to Social Media in law firms, and about how legal marketers can reduce social media risk. It wasn’t about me, nor was it about my firm.

I love your idea about creating additional hashtags – #bigidea – and I’ve done it before many times. Here’s the challenge though: if people use it, there is even less space for the content.

Probably the bigger challenge that I see within law firms is that not all partners and staff use Social Media actively: it’s still a passive activity. No quick checks on LinkedIn before critical meetings, no review of Twitter posts (or comments) – broadcast at best.


Lisa Dutton April 15, 2014 at 3:40 pm

Absolutely. If you can get all lawyers to see the value in briefing themselves as you’ve described, you should win the Internet. I know of more than a few who won business because they did they were the only ones who did.

I was responding to your post as I read it. I wasn’t in your session, or at the conference. I found your blog post from the link in Nancy Myrland’s blog post, which I tracked back from one of the comments on another platform referencing a comment on yet another platform. So I was unaware of your session topic and meant “you” as “a speaker”, not you personally – I should have been more clear about that.

In the context of risk prevention, I believe your 50/50 feedback and have to believe that, at some point, somebody is going to make some money off something and someone else will claim prior ownership and commercial or financial loss. Whether 140 characters summed up from a comment shared publicly and passed along in a social context can meet any legal standard remains to be seen.

I believe your 50/50 experience, and my observation to this point was that opinions were weighted considerably to the “seriously?” side. If I took this conversation to the Twitterverse with #livetweet #plagiarism, whose @ is it? If I found a way to make money from it, you’d find many, many people between your blog and my comment to include as co-defendants for their failure to include a URL or your name in the space available.

That the conversation is passionate is, it seems to me, a case of layering generational and/or professional standards from one class on another, and a question of context. A journalist, academic or lawyer in his or her professional capacity have a higher standard to meet, regardless of context. For most people, I’d still accept ibid in a livetweet context. An ounce of prevention@BenFranklin?


Suzanne April 14, 2014 at 10:08 am

Firstly, Randall thanks for starting the conversation. I think that your perspective is insightful and is worth a discussion. My view is simple, if you were to share an idea with a friend face-to-face or in writing and it was not yours, yet you know the source, should you not share it? Now if you were to speak to another friend and share the same comment, again you know the source, would you not share it? etc.

Is it ok now to ignore where the original source came from because you told one person? It is the same with twitter, each time you post on twitter the reader can be someone completely different. I think who you are quoting or who’s idea you are sharing needs recognition every time you share it. I don’t think it is a personal style thing, or even about promoting the ‘speaker’ – it is a reference thing. Every tweet should have the author of the idea. I actually think that this is more important than the hash tag of the event, although nice to have both. The event didn’t say it, the individual did. It all goes back to when quoting ideas in writing, we should share our source. The reality is if you tweet it as if it came from you, who is being self promoting? Just a thought.


Randall Craig April 14, 2014 at 12:21 pm

Thanks Suzanne for your perspective.


Jeff Korhan April 14, 2014 at 12:03 pm

Hi Randall – My view on this is the community ecosystem determines the generally accepted practices, and we all know that to be No. 1 in your list. That’s how it has been from the earliest days of Twitter: Give attribution with a link.

I’m reminded of a quote from notable motivational speaker and sales trainer Zig Ziglar: “I always give credit (attribution) because it’s the right thing to do.”

Of course, in his inimitable style, Zig would use humor to drive this point home: “Also, this way if the information is not correct I can always blame the other guy!”

What’s interesting in this age of digital is the ecosystem knows the original author of all material, because it’s recorded in the social graphs. Thus, the truth eventually rises to the surface, which is why it is indeed smart to do the right thing and give credit in the right way.

In my mind the link to the source is everything, whether that is the original source of publication or the author. Considering that Google Authorship establishes the author of original work, not providing attribution is likely to compromise one’s own online authority if attribution is not provided.

So, if for no other reason, if you want to stay in the good graces of Google, do the right thing.


Randall Craig April 16, 2014 at 9:34 pm

Thanks Jeff: Relevant point re Google Authorship, but is this not most relevant for blogs? If Google Authorship worked on Tweets, then all problems solved…


Cortney Cook April 14, 2014 at 1:56 pm

Attribution is incredibly crucial when you’re presenting information, even if it’s just a tweet. You are sharing other people’s ideas, so unless the idea comes out of your mouth, ATTRIBUTE! When you plagiarize anything, even something as simple as a speech at a conference, you are subjecting yourself to lawsuits galore.
Understandably, in a written article it’s not as frowned upon if you don’t attribute every single sentence as long as you attribute the first piece of shared information. The reader can normally follow the text and understand the quotes or ideas still come from that person you cited. You can be even more safe by throwing a couple attributions in between big blocks of text to remind the reader.
But on Twitter and Facebook people seem to forget all these rules. It’s not safe to assume the person reading the tweets was following all the previous posts that did attribute. Unless you’re scrolling endlessly through that person’s Twitter handle, you won’t see those tweets chronologically and in one place in your news feed.
There are so many ways to narrow things down to 140 characters, and there’s always room for the source of the information.


Randall Craig April 14, 2014 at 3:34 pm

Thanks for chiming in, Cortney. A perspective from a journalist: your point about “forgetting the rules” is too true – sometimes, the rules are completely new, not known, or perhaps not completely thought through.


Adrian Davis April 14, 2014 at 2:47 pm

Hi Randall,

Great post and discussion! I think Twitter is tricky as many speakers, including myself, haven’t been great about sharing their handle. Like you, I’m flattered when people retweet my ideas, and even more so when they include my handle (@TheSalesOracle). By default, we should seek to give attribution. Speakers can help by making our Twitter handles more apparent.
Having said that, Twitter doesn’t allow for much in the way of capturing substantive ideas. 140 characters usually means a pithy phrase and/or a link to a longer article.
I think the main point of your post is that we should think through what our policy is and adhere to it rather than engaging without thinking.
Thanks for your post!


Randall Craig April 16, 2014 at 9:36 pm

Thanks Adrian: the challenge of the pithy phrase indeed.


Mary Charleson April 15, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Interesting topic. I think social media has caused us to reflect on this from different angles – and that’s likely a progressive thing. Those of us (and it seems there are a few willing to admit it) who come from the old school background of traditional and academic sourcing are seeing ourselves challenge by a new breed out there, that has grown up in the age of shared free content, with less regard for authorship. I personally believe what goes around comes around and that by ensuring credit to original content creators is key to ensuring you are also treated fairly.

That said, the 140 character limit is at times challenging. I have found myself more than once wanting to add to a stream of thought while RT’ing it, but in the end being challenged to maintain all the @’s and hashtags associated with the original. I’ve edited the original statement slightly to maintain author credit, but I figure that is better than not crediting at all. I suppose that becomes a good reason to always tweet less than 140, so it’s easily RT’d with credit. Good point about using hashtags to maintain the thread and authorship, but if hashtags aren’t used, it can be very hard to track and maintain integrity of what is said. Perhaps the best insurance against all this is to establish enough personal credibility and worth that those who tweet our thoughts WANT to be associated with our @handle, and be recognized by us and others in that industry as having something valuable to say?


Randall Craig April 16, 2014 at 9:35 pm

Great perspective, Mary – thanks for chiming in.


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