The problem: big publishers "borrowing" stories from smaller publishers, redrafting them, and republishing them. Because the bigger publisher has greater domain authority, "their" story achieves higher rank.
Can you pick "who made who" in the following examples?
Give Windows 7 Away For Free
Why Microsoft Should Give Windows Seven Away
Cars That Are Guaranteed To Get You Laid
Cars Of 2009 Most Likely To Get You Laid
Of course, the publishers of these specific examples may not of been aware of each others existence. Great minds can think alike. But there are so many examples of coincidence out there, one suspects it isn't all purely a matter of chance.
Whilst borrowing of ideas is nothing new, if you're a publisher, content borrowing can wreak havoc with your seo strategies. The big and powerful sites dominate, and the little guy often gets relegated. Google's linking algorithms reward the already rich, and make them richer.
The sad reality is that whilst the web started out with the intention of being a democracy of information, it now closely resembles the power structures of the offline world. By the time you read this article, it has very likely been reproduced without attribution.
Here are a few ideas on how the little guy can fight back.
1. The Power Of Relationships/Distribution
It is said that business can be boiled down to two essential elements: to sell something for more than it costs to produce, and the ability to nurture relationships.
If you're a publisher, you can leverage the relationship you have with your readers in order to protect you from "the borrowers". Once you readers, and indirect competitors, are aware of your work, it becomes harder for your competitors to talk to that same market, using your ideas.
Think about what you can do for your readers to instill a sense of loyalty. Give them something of value. Make them feel indebted to you. Give people a stake in your success.
Consider allowing people to republish your content under certain conditions. i.e. when you have sufficient page rank, allow others to copy parts of your work, so long as they link back to the original. Such a policy might turn those who would ordinarily steal from you into allies who supply free link juice.
Try to make your content an identifiable part of your brand.
For example, part of your brand might be your a stylistic approach to writing. It would be very difficult to directly rip off Dave Barry, because he writes himself into his articles.
Typically, the more generic a piece is, the easier it is to borrow, so try to weave something unique to you, or your site, into the article. Perhaps use arguments and points that rely on a link to one of your previous articles, in order that they make sense.
3. Launch Hard
When you create a new site, or a new piece of content, shout loud about it.
Use all the channels. Twitter about it. Email your subscribers. Submit your article to aggregation networks. Pitch your article to other publishers with whom you've built a strong relationship, and who you know will link back and credit you.
In tight communities, like the SEO world, it will be harder to rip you off if you've made yourself visible in all the channels the community uses.
4. Create A Publicity Storm
If you're very sure of your ground i.e. someone has blatantly copied and republished your content without permission, you could create a lot of media mileage by outing them. If they won't acknowledge you, then their direct competitors might be very open to highlighting the borrowers contemptible practices. Use the same approach you do when you launch hard.
Say it often, and spread the (negative) message wide. Done correctly, a publicity storm might generate more back-links links than the original article. In any case, they'll certainly think twice about taking your stuff in future.
5. Fire Fight
Another approach is the cavalry charge.
Contact the publisher, contact the people linking to them, have your friends write about the culprit. Do it each and every time someone steals your work. Do it on Twitter. Do it on their site. You could even hire an army of cheap Mechanical Turks to do the job for you.
You can find links using Yahoo's Site Explorer, duplicate posts using Google Blog Search, and Technorati.
6. Become Big
The problem with the above approaches is that they can take a lot of your time.
Where you really want to be is so big that your direct competitors wouldn't dare take your stuff. The smaller upstarts who take your stuff won't be able to rank against you anyway.
This last point is where I'd put most of my efforts. As frustrating as it is, the web is a very difficult environment in which to enforce copyright. Spending a lot of time fighting that fact won't make the interweb leopard change it's spots.
It's like the spam reporting approach. Do you spend all your time dobbing in spammers above you in the vain hope they'll all disappear, or do you beat them by building an authoritative, trusted domain?
Nurture those relationships to help you get there :)