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I used to think only big-money name brands were victimized by copycats ripping off their products.

You know what I mean: You’re at the grocery store, intending to pick up Kraft macaroni and cheese, but inadvertently buy the store brand. You don’t notice until you get home, so you say, “I’ll give it a whirl. How bad can it be?” A few hours later, when you’re hunched over the toilet trying to decide whether you ate macaroni and cheese or crickets and bile, you’re reminded of the price of settling for an imitation.

Copycats are now targeting journalists, too. Because hey, who WOULDN’T want to be criticized by the president every day and subsist on store-brand macaroni and cheese?

Websites are ripping off newspapers’ work by publishing their stories, replacing key words with synonyms. Why? First, because they don’t want to be sued for plagiarism. And second, because they want to attract readers unwilling to pay for subscriptions to newspapers’ websites. They’re using synonyms to get around our paywalls. No wonder reporters can’t afford name-brand macaroni and cheese.

The trouble is, sometimes you get what you pay for. Replacing words with other words that mean the same thing sounds good in theory, but ripoff artists forget context means everything. Without context, what you get is another cheap meal: Alphabet soup.

My newspaper was victimized this month when a website whose domain has since been suspended copied my colleague Tim Damos’ expose about the former highway commissioner accepting favors from contractors. They did give the Baraboo News Republic credit, sort of: The website attributed our report to the Baraboo Information Republic.

“An legal professional with experience in ethics instances that contain public officers stated the emails could have authorized penalties for Muchow,” the website’s version read, “who already is beneath investigation by the Wisconsin Division of Justice.” Whoever committed this crime against sentence structure and intellectual property should be placed “beneath” arrest.

Our report read thusly: A state law says local government officials may not use their positions for private benefit. The copycats’ version? “A state legislation says native authorities officers could not use their positions for personal profit.” I’ll take Awkward Synonyms for $400, Alex.

Ripoff artists inadvertently demonstrate how intricate the English language is. A rock may be a stone, but imagine if the Rolling Stones had rocked out to “(I Can’t Get No) Fulfillment.” Ask me about my car, and I’ll tell you it’s pretty crappy. And by that I don’t mean that it’s “beautiful crappy.”

Awkward synonym use is how you end up with nonsensical phrases like, “The newly obtained emails present Muchow had simply accomplished an order of industrial quality vans.” What?

What’s really troubling is that the website changed sources’ direct quotes. “If this follow have been allowed to proceed on this, or some other county division, it might be troubling to the integrity and data administration applications the county has in place,” the sheriff said. Even Donald Rumsfeld would agree that quote makes no sense.

They say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but plagiarism is a no-no, and plagiarism by synonym is a crime against grammar. Consider fragments such as, “It’s doable the alternate was in jest.” And “the sheriff took purpose on the workers who got here ahead.” Seeing our work not only ripped off, but mangled beyond recognition, is enough to make us sick to our stomachs. It’s as if we’d eaten store-brand macaroni and cheese.


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