“They’re ripping you off.”
That’s how a recent email from a reader began. It was followed by a link to a popular forum for frequent fliers, which has recently begun developing “original” content.
I’ve put the words “original” in quotes, because it was a story that I had indeed written for USA Today, but using different words.
The reader was probably expecting an indignant reaction from me, but has received none — until now.
A few days later, one of my brightest volunteers left the Elliott family to start her own advocacy organization. When I checked her new site, I found that it looked and felt almost exactly like this one. Similar mission, virtually identical content. Even the case intake form had been copied almost to the word.
And again, I haven’t said anything.
So here’s my response:
I love it.
Love it, love it, love it!
Imitation isn’t just the sincerest form of flattery; in these cases, imitation is good for you, too. At least, I hope so.
Let’s scroll back to the knock-off article, which was about emotional support animals on planes. The original piece was a great story because it started an important debate about whether some passengers — specifically, those who required an emotional support animal — had more rights than others, like passengers with allergies.
The duplicate story contained all of my sources and made all the same points, but had been rephrased, presumably to avoid the appearance of plagiarism. I tried to send the writer a friendly email thanking her for picking up the story and encouraging her to at least call some of my sources the next time instead of paraphrasing what they’d told me. Alas, there was no email address to be found for her.
I can think of two reasons for the rewrite. First, the site has a long history of publishing hateful comments about the advocacy work we do on this site. Perhaps they didn’t want to start another flame war, which I can assure you, we would win. Much more likely, though, is that the overworked writer had another dozen stories to post that day and didn’t have the time to do any original reporting.
Believe me, I know what that’s like.
Either way, the result is what’s important. The imitation article started a thoughtful debate in the self-described “expert” travel community. And it’s a debate worth having.
And about that new site … I admit, I’m still baffled at having a carbon copy of my advocacy organization created by a former volunteer. That hasn’t happened in the two decades I’ve been doing this.
This ex-volunteer is someone who I had taken under my wing a year ago. I taught her almost everything I knew about advocacy. It was clear that she aspired to more. She wanted her own organization.
The circumstances surrounding her departures (that’s right, she left us twice) are uninteresting. Advocates have strong personalities and sometimes, that’s what makes them effective advocates. This former volunteer’s driving, Type-A personality may have turned a few of her fellow advocates off, but she also scored some of our biggest successes.
When I reviewed the knock-off site, I found that she was taking full credit for all of those victories, having completely removed all references to the fact that each case originated on this site. Perhaps I should have been upset about all of it — the copied mission, verbiage and the cases.
But I’m not.
I think of my advocacy and journalism as a vaccine for a horrible illness, that illness being dreadful customer service. It is too important to be proprietary about it. We need more advocates, not fewer.
So it’s fine that there’s a fledgling advocacy site out there that kind of glosses over the fact that it couldn’t exist without this site. It’s also fine that there are stories — lots of stories — that I inspired but were never properly credited to us.
In the end, all of this will lead to better customer service. And isn’t that what really what matters?