In which Natalie discovers something curious and investigates
I’ve been a bit obsessed with productivity tools the last few months. This is not a new fascination for me–I’ve had planners that worked either more or less well my entire working life until I finally decided to try out bullet journaling earlier this year. That basically combined my love of lists with my love of pen and paper in a way that apps on my phone just can’t (although I do still keep a digital calendar–can’t get by without one). And my love of office supplies–especially pens and paper–goes back to my elementary school days. So I’ve followed a lot of productivity and stationery blogs over the years–I may not be a very active participant, but I’ve definitely been reading.
One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about this particular community is the helpful nature of it–many many many people take a lot of time to test different products and write up reviews. Sometimes they purchase the items themselves and sometimes vendors provide items for review in exchange for a link. It’s simultaneously a tremendous resource and a terrible temptation–it’s a lot like the book community, actually.
Most of the people I’ve encountered in this space are both happy and willing to support small businesses as well as each other–I see so many small businesses taking off by serving a loyal niche market (Nock Co, Karas Kustoms, Desiderata Pens). My general impression has been that if people are monetizing, they’re either doing it quietly or they’re doing it by selling tangible goods–which makes sense, as it’s a community centered around tangible goods.
My fondness for this community is why I find myself annoyed by recent trends around monetization and brand-building by some planner bloggers in the pen and paper space.
This is mostly something that I can deal with–no one’s forcing me to read their blogs and I certainly don’t have a problem with people being paid for their work. And every so often, there’s a suggestion I can adopt or modify for myself (which is why they stay in my feed reader).
The purpose of this post is not to decry people being paid for their work.
I’m making this post because one of these women is a plagiarist.
I have, with the help of some friends, documented two cases where she has copied content word for word from other sources without documentation or credit. There are two other marginal cases where there is significant overlap between her content and that of others. I don’t have the patience or time to research everything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if these were not isolated incidents.
The blogger I’m talking about is Kara Benz of Boho Berry.
I’ll note that I challenged her in the comments on her April earnings report (screencap) when I asked if she was planning on paying her guest bloggers. Long story short, she has no plans to pay for people’s work but she has no issue with making money for herself off their labor because they’re getting “exposure”. I believe that once your venture more than pays for itself then you have an obligation to pay people for their labor. But like the monetization and brand-building, this is orthogonal to the purpose of this post.
I wouldn’t make this sort of assertion without proof, so here we go!
Kara Benz copies Getting Things Done
A few weeks ago, Benz posted about David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which is one of the foundational texts of the online productivity community. Benz said she’d been unfamiliar with it until she’d been told about it by Brian Goulet (of Goulet Pens) and picked up a copy. All fine and good, although I don’t know how anyone decides to be a productivity pundit without doing basic research but whatever.
One of my friends pointed out that Benz had images that were word for word from David Allen’s website.
I went looking, and sure enough, she’d copied his website.
The paragraph before this image reads:
That being said, I know that some of you may not have ready the book yet, so here is a quick overview for you. This is the guide that I created for myself in my Bullet Journal earlier this year. (emphasis mine)
A casual reader would assume that this is Benz’s own summary of Allen’s content, as she does not link to his website or even mention anywhere in the post that he has a website.
Except he does. An entire page about the Five Steps.
Note that not only are the words the same, so is the punctuation.
Benz goes on to copy Allen’s content two more times in this post. She does credit him with developing the flowchart in the print copy of the book but does not cite a page number (page 32 in the 2001 edition).
However, the fact that the flowchart is also available on Allen’s website is never mentioned. If his method is worth writing about, then visibly pointing people at his site should also be worthwhile.
Allen’s flowchart (located here):
Benz’s Weekly Review:
Allen’s Weekly Review (located here):
Now, if you were to take the time to download the PDFs that Benz provides for these images, you would see that Benz does credit Allen and directs people to the GTD website, but I find it completely baffling that she didn’t provide attribution or links to his site within the post itself. Completely baffling.
The only scenario I can come up with here is that she knew she needed to credit him but didn’t want Allen’s URL appearing on the images that she posts to Pinterest. Pinterest is, according to her monthly traffic and earnings reports, one of her top referrers: so having appealing images is very important and those images need to send people to her site, not to someone else’s.
But that still doesn’t explain why there aren’t any links within the post itself.
After discovering this, I wondered if any other content had been copied.
Kara Benz copies Trello
I remembered a post about using Trello as an editorial calendar that I’d found useful while I was setting up my calendar at the beginning of the year, so I searched for “Trello editorial calendar” to see if anything popped up.
Trello’s blog has a post about this that went up a year ago. Benz’s post was published in July of last year–definitely after the post on Trello went up. From what I can tell, Trello’s post went up right around the same time she launched Boho Berry, in fact.
In this case, it’s not the content of the post itself that is copied without attribution, but the setup and organization of the editorial calendar itself. As with Allen’s content, at no time does Benz attribute the source of her content–instead, she implies that this is her original work. Trello actually provides the functionality to copy public boards to your own account, so she didn’t even need to recreate this–all she had to do was copy it over.
Note that the boards have almost identical names and are in almost the same order while the labels are identical (in Trello, the labels default to being named after their color).
Even her checklists are similar:
The other two instances I found are much more easily explained through carelessness or ignorance: a guide to setting up a to do list that bears a strong resemblance to one at All Day Creativity found by searching for “steps to do ‘top three'” and looking at everything that came up on the first page. And the other was just last week where Benz’s 35 Acts of Kindness Before 35 post was apparently inspired by a similar list on Oprah.com from 2000–found by searching for “35 before 35 kindness”.
In other words: I wasn’t even looking that hard. I picked the to do list post at random and the 35 before 35 list seemed like it would be ripe for being copied in whole or part from elsewhere because those sorts of lists are all over the place and listicles are easy content.
Note: I discovered after writing this piece that Benz re-purposed the to do list post over at the official Bullet Journal blog–in this case, she doesn’t mention that it was originally published on her site and it’s nearly word for word and image for image identical. This is a classic online entrepreneur tactic: re-purpose as much content as you can. But she does link to David Allen’s site, so–yay?
Giving credit to people for their work is not difficult. And, in fact, I believe that if you are setting yourself up as a leader that you have an obligation to do so in an obvious and transparent way, not hidden on PDFs or other nooks and crannies of your website.
This seems like an awful lot of coincidence for it to actually be coincidence. This is the sort of mistake a lot of people new to blogging make, but most people also don’t catapult to this kind of community prominence so quickly–unless they’re determined to do so.
Online Marketing Snake Oil
There are a lot of guides out there for how to manage that and some of them want you to pay hundreds of dollars. None of the guides I’ve seen about marketing yourself or building your brand talk about not stealing other people’s work or anything else that touches on ethics. I’ve actually seen a lot of guides suggest things that feel unethical to me and it’s really distressing to see someone completely cross the line.
So generally, this is how you go about vaulting ahead of your competition when you want to build your brand and be perceived as a “thought leader”:
- Find a relatively unexploited niche and research who has name recognition within this niche.
- Position yourself as an “expert” by writing a blog–be sure to link to the folks who have name recognition.
- Set up a newsletter to “build your list”.
- Create a basic info-product and put it up for sale. Be sure to call it a book even it it’s only a 30 page PDF. Sell it to your list and be sure to talk about it on social media. Charge at least $20 for this book, if not more.
- Network with people who have name recognition in your niche. Offer to collaborate and cross-promote with them.
- Start offering your “expertise” via seminars or webinars.
- Offer an online class–sell it to your list and push it on social media and on your blog. Even better if you can offer people an affiliate fee in exchange for them promoting it for you.
- Start working with people one on one–you’re a life coach now!
(Hey, look. I gave all that to you for free instead of charging you a few hundred bucks. You’re welcome.)
At this point Benz is on step 6–in less than a year after first discovering the world of productivity. I’d find this impressive if it weren’t for the plagiarism.
The plagiarism casts a shadow all of Benz’s work and, for me, calls her motivation and character into question.
I don’t expect Kara Benz to pause for even a moment of discomfort or self-reflection–that doesn’t seem to be her style. She’s all about the positive thoughts.
I do hope that others think about this before collaborating or entering into a business relationship with Kara Benz. I would be concerned about any jointly owned intellectual property as well as the originality of her contributions to such.
I will not support someone who has no compunction about stealing and profiting from other people’s work while simultaneously preaching about positivity and claiming to want to help others. As far as I can tell, the main person Kara Benz wants to help is Kara Benz. Seems like something people would want to keep in mind.
Images of Jessica Fletcher are from the television program Murder, She Wrote, which is the property of Universal Television. Use of still or animated images as commentary generally falls under fair use.