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What is a Copyright Trap?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 16, 2024
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A copyright trap is a piece of erroneous or strange information which is inserted into a reference work so that copyright violations and plagiarism can be easily detected. Copyright traps are also sometimes known as fictitious entries or Mountweazels. When someone repeats the erroneous information without a proper citation, it is a sign that plagiarism or intellectual theft may have been involved, since the misinformation only exists in one place.

One classic use of the copyright trap is in maps. Map companies claim that they no longer use copyright traps, although there is some evidence to the contrary. An example of a copyright trap in a map might be a town which doesn't really exist, sometimes called a "paper town." If another mapmaker referenced the paper town in their maps, it would mean that it had stolen its information, rather than doing its own research.

Dictionaries have also been known to use copyright traps, making up words and seeing how many dictionaries fall for the trick. Dictionaries rely on original research to publish and define new words, ideally relying on several sources to confirm that the word is in common use. If a dictionary repeats a copyright trap, the original dictionary's publisher might scrutinize other entries in the dictionary closely for signs of plagiarism.

Some producers of content on the Internet also use a copyright trap to protect their content. Bloggers, for example, may insert a unique key phrase into their entries so that if another site uses their work without attribution, they can find it by looking for the key phrase. There aren't many times that a phrase like "rumpled bananas" would pop up in the middle of a web page, so these copyright traps act like fingerprints which can be used to identify lazy plagiarists who cut and paste without paying attention to the contents. These copyright traps can also act as a tip-off when material is "borrowed" for an academic paper, as the grading professor may take note of the strange phrase and research it on the Internet to find its origins.

Fictitious entries can also be humorous in nature, designed as a hoax for people with sharp eyes. The humor can sometimes backfire, however, especially if a fictitious entry is reprinted in other publications, adding an air of credibility which causes people to believe that the information is true. Confusions over birth dates, cities of birth, and other biographical information can sometimes be traced back to fictitious entries which were added as a joke and later taken seriously by people who lacked familiarity with the subject.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a MyLawQuestions researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments

By jcraig — On Apr 10, 2012

@titans62 - Good point. There are a lot of websites online that are supposed to help track if your information is being printed on other websites. I'm not sure how it works, exactly, since I've never used one.

I'm guessing what they do is let you upload the URL to your pages and then it periodically does an internet search to see if any other pages turn up similar phrases. Even if people take your work and try to change a bunch of the words, it is still pretty easy to recognize theft by the sentence structure and phrasing. The unique words are also good tip-offs.

What I usually do is periodically take key lines from my pages and put them into Google. If anything matches, you can look at the page and try to decide if they have stolen your work and then take the necessary action if needed.

By titans62 — On Apr 10, 2012

I don't remember when I read this, but there was a claim that Trivial Pursuit was actually plagiarizing questions from a guy who wrote trivia books. In order to catch people stealing his material, he would put incorrect answers to some questions or put misspellings and such. Conveniently enough, the Trivial Pursuit questions also had the same wrong answers in them, so the guy sued them. I'm not sure what the outcome was, but I'm guessing the company had a hard time explaining the similarities.

I do like the idea of weaving in a key word or phrase into blog posts to help track down people who are stealing your work. If they catch onto it and take out the words, though, it might be hard to track the stuff down later.

By Izzy78 — On Apr 09, 2012

@Emilski - Well, like the article says, they probably don't put incorrect definitions, that would undermine the whole purpose of buying a dictionary. What they probably do is add in fake words. Especially nowadays where a lot of things are online, if a company searches for their fake word and finds it on another website, they should have enough proof of plagiarism to take legal action. I guess the downside would be if someone stumbled upon the word and tried to use it.

I do think it is interesting how people have come up with ways to catch people who are plagiarizing material. One of the other things people could do if they were willing to risk a bit of their reputation is the knowingly include typos in their web pages. If that person then found someone else who just happened to have the exact same types in their material, it would be a good indicator that someone was stealing.

By Emilski — On Apr 08, 2012

Wow, I never realized so many people used copyright traps like this. I have heard of it being used in some places, but not in maps and dictionaries.

It seems like putting copyright traps on those two things could really cause some problems, though. I'm guessing as far as maps go, they probably put fake cities in more remote areas where a lot of people won't be affected by the mistakes, but I could still see it causing some confusion, especially if you lived in that area.

I think putting mistakes in dictionaries might be the worst. Again, they probably put mistakes in some of the more obscure words, but still. If you legitimately needed to look up that word, what are you supposed to do?

Mary McMahon

Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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