Every college student is haunted by the specter of plagiarism: Passing off someone else’s work as your own, getting busted, and facing dire consequences – up to and including expulsion.
However, plagiarism isn’t confined to academia. It’s also a hot topic for content creators, especially on YouTube, and potentially fatal to their channel.
But what is YouTube plagiarism exactly? And how can you avoid it?
Here’s everything you have to know.
What is YouTube plagiarism?
By definition, plagiarism means that you take someone else’s work – their ideas and words – and present it as your own.
When it comes to YouTube, there are two kinds of plagiarism:
- People plagiarizing off YouTube, like a high school student lifting the majority of their Civil War essay from the transcript of a history YouTuber’s video.
- People plagiarizing sources like books, articles, or other videos to create YouTube content. It’s this kind of plagiarism that we’ll focus on in this article.
The issue of plagiarism on YouTube was recently thrown into the spotlight by British YouTuber Harris Brewis, aka Hbomberguy. In early December 2023, he released an incredibly well-researched, four-hour video diving deep into the widespread YouTube plagiarism problem, and the system that incentivizes it.
Brewis outlines how countless creators, especially video essayists discussing topics like from film, media, and social issues, often lift their video scripts from other sources without citing them. In many cases, they don’t even bother to summarize or paraphrase the texts they steal, rather reading them off verbatim.
The current set-up and pace of the creator economy incentivizes this type of plagiarism. To win over the YouTube algorithm, creators have to keep up consistent content production, ideally posting multiple times per week. This leaves little time for thorough research and can make the idea of lifting content from others extremely tempting.
Another issue is AI. With the advent of generative AI, many creators use the likes of ChatGPT and Bard to draw up video scripts without fact-checking them or citing sources. Some AI tools even specifically offer to turn sources like Wikipedia articles into YouTube videos, in a matter of minutes.
The result? Original sources and authors remain unattributed, which makes it difficult, or impossible to verify information and leads to a fast degeneration of factual content quality.
For viewers, this means that they’ll have to think carefully about which YouTube sources they trust.
But what are the implications for creators?
How can plagiarism hurt YouTubers?
The main danger of YouTube plagiarism is reputational damage and the resulting loss of audience trust.
While it’s theoretically possible for journalists, authors, and other people whose ideas were stolen to sue creators, few pursue that option.
However, once a creators’ audience gets wind of the fact that they’ve been stealing others’ intellectual property rather than doing their own research and coming up with their own ideas, their YouTube career can be over in a matter of days.
There’s no better example of this than James Somerton. Somerton was a YouTuber and filmmaker well-known for his video essays on LGBTQ themes in media. He’d amassed an audience of over 260K followers and was reportedly making over $170,000 a year.
In his extensive takedown of YouTube plagiarism, Brewis uses Somerton as an example of shameless plagiarism. He compares extracts from his videos with the source texts from which he stole, showing that he often plagiarized more than a dozen writers in a single video.
As a result, Somerton faced a massive firestorm of criticism and ultimately deleted his entire online presence, after first posting then deleting an apology message on Patreon.
within 24 hours of Hbombs video, James Somerton:— 🌲F0rtune🌲 (@F0rtuneL0wT1er) December 4, 2023
-deleted his discord
-deleted his twitter
-disabled comments on most of his youtube videos
-posted this on his patreon, only for him to delete the post and then his account soon after pic.twitter.com/oKdnqfxyPy
How to avoid YouTube plagiarism?
Given the potentially disastrous fallout, how do you avoid YouTube plagiarism?
The only way to do so is to be completely transparent about the origins of your ideas, and your sources.
Mention the articles, books, and essays you used for inspiration during your video and link sources in your description. It’s crucial to make clear which ideas are your own and which you take from other creators or authors.
If you want to use a passage from a source, either paraphrase it or make clear that it’s a direct quote. (Even if you paraphrase it, though, you need to mention the original source!)
As for the use of AI, it can be a great tool to gather ideas or even outlines for video scripts. However, to avoid unintentional plagiarism or even factual errors, you need to carefully fact-check whatever texts the AI produces.
In the past, tools like ChatGPT have become notorious among academics for completely inventing citations. So even if a text it produces looks reliable, it might not be.
The Bottom Line: Play it Safe
As tempting as it may be to make videos based on lifting text or ideas from articles you read or books you come across, plagiarism is not a viable long-term strategy for YouTube success. While it can help you increase your content quantity, you live with the constant danger of being exposed and losing the trust of your audience.
When it comes to YouTube plagiarism, it’s better to play it safe. Cite your sources, attribute the ideas you present. While it takes some additional effort, you stay safe from accusations of intellectual property theft, and can win over the trust of your audience long-term.
Yes. Whenever you pass someone else’s ideas or words off as your own without citing sources, it counts as plagiarism. While some plagiarism tools are better than others at detecting content lifted from YouTube, there is a serious risk of getting busted.
YouTube plagiarism can refer either to people stealing content from videos – for instance for school assignments – or to creators lifting ideas and text for video scripts from sources like opinion essays, books, and other videos.
The best way to avoid YouTube plagiarism is to cite your sources. Be completely honest and transparent about where you get your information and ideas from. Mention your sources in your video, put references in your video description. And if you want to use passages from someone’s work, either paraphrase them or say that you are quoting them directly.
YouTube plagiarism can be tricky to detect since the platform doesn’t implement any plagiarism checks. One way to go about it is to take sections from video transcripts and search for them in Google and Google Scholar. Many creators lift entire passages from academics, journalists, and opinion writers without crediting them. In that case, the original texts will show up in the results.
Yes. Legal consequences are possible, if unlikely. The main fallout is reputational damage and a loss of audience trust. Former YouTuber James Somerton, for instance, completely deleted his online presence after his extensive plagiarism was uncovered.