Copying, plagiarism, and how to avoid duplication and copyright infringement

I recently had a prospective customer contact me and ask about my writing services. His organization wants to create some content and they have a few pieces from competitors that they really like. This prospect wondered if I could do something similar for his company but was quick to clarify that he didn’t want me copying the competitor’s work.

This is a common request among people hiring writers and copying/duplication/copyright is also a huge issue in the writing and marketing industry. And it’s not just an issue for legal (i.e. copyright infringement) reasons but also for search engine optimization reasons — search engines prefer original content to duplicate content.

In this blog post, I’m going to give you my thoughts and ideas but let me just make this disclaimer up-front: This blog post does not constitute legal advice. If you have any concerns about copyright and copyright infringement, you should talk to an attorney. This is by no means comprehensive or exhaustively authoritative. Instead, I’m simply writing about some of my observations and rules of thumb I’ve developed over the years, and I’m trying to portray the spectrum of the issue — both good and bad. I do not endorse all of the information I am writing about here!

Let’s start with a scenario: A customer has a document (we’ll call it a “source document”) and they want their own document (an “end document”). That document could be an ebook or a website or an article or whatever. It doesn’t matter. And they may do the work themselves or with a staff writer or a freelancer or whatever. Again, that doesn’t matter. The key point I want to cover in this scenario is how the source document influences the end document.

When you think of a document, it’s not just a collection of words. It has scope, tone, appearance, a message, and it is written for a specific audience. The more of those qualities that your source document and your end document share, the more likely you are that you are risking duplicate content and copyright infringement. (Again, that is just my own opinion, drawn from nearly 20 years as a writer, but the word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience characteristics have served me well as markers of content originality).

So let’s look at the ways that the source document could possibly influence the end document…

WORD-FOR-WORD COPY

This is where someone basically opens the source document, clicks Control+A to highlight all of text, then copies the text and pastes it in the end document. Then they sign their own name as the author.

This is plagiarism and it’s illegal. There is very little argument here. The word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are identical.

Unfortunately, it happens a lot because businesses produce so much content and it can be hard to police the issue (or, once you’ve found a culprit, to do anything about it). Trying to put myself in the shoes of a plagiarizer for a moment, I’m sure it’s tempting to copy and paste when you find something great, and especially when you compare the price of hiring a writer to write something original versus just spending 30 seconds to grab the content yourself. Plus, we live in an era where there is a lot of free stuff online anyway so the rules can seem a little blurry. I’m definitely not condoning it as a practice!

You can use tools like Copyscape to help you identify some of the times when it happens but no solution is perfect.

As someone who writes for clients for a living, and adheres to strict standards of originality, it drives me absolutely nuts that plagiarism is even an issue. I hate looking at requests for proposals from prospective clients and seeing “we will check your work against Copyscape”. I understand why they put that in their RFP and I hate that they have to do it. And I hate that there are people out there who call themselves writers but really only know how to press Control+A, Control+C, and Control+V. (Rant over)

WRAPPERS AND QUOTATIONS

This one has some good qualities to it and some bad qualities to it. So first I’ll describe it and then tell you waht I think about it: Let’s consider our original scenario again — a business that has a source document and wants an end document. One way they can draw from the source document for their end document is to copy some of the source document content, paste it into their end document, and then “wrap” that content with original content.

If you ever wrote a paper in school, you probably did just that: You wrote your own content and then backed it up with research that you quoted from others. In essence, your content copying was “wrapped” with your own original content. But it happens outside of academia as well. I see it in blogs a lot — where a business will use some info grabbed from somewhere else and then write their own introduction and conclusion.

Whether this is a good practice or a bad practice depends on a couple of things:

  • Attribution: When I was studying for my MBA, we had to review the papers of one of our classmates and noticed that the tone and word choice in the paper switched back and forth a lot. So I did a bit of research and found that his source document was written by someone else… unfortunately, instead of quoting from the source document and attributing it appropriately, he tried to pass it off as his own work. (I reported him and he vanished from class — no big loss.)
  • Amount of content: In the copyright and disclaimer sections of some books, they will sometimes list the amount of content you can copy and if they do that, they’ll often give you the reasons when you’re allowed to copy. When it’s not clear how much content you’re allowed to copy, there may very well be laws that dictate but I’ve never known what they are. In general, though, it’s hard to go wrong with some smallish quotes that, again, are properly attributed.
  • Access: This one gets overlooked a lot but I think it’s important. I think the amount of access that people have to a specific piece of content can also determine how much you can copy. If you are quoting from a book that is for sale, you shouldn’t use too much of it. If you are quoting from a popular article that is posted online, you may be able to use more. (Again, always attribute appropriately and check copyright restrictions).

The word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are going to be mostly different for your original content and obviously the same for the copied content.

I think the key idea here is whether or not you are passing stuff off as your own or revealing a ton of stuff contained in a source document that most people have to pay for.

IDEA-FOR-IDEA COPY

Word-for-word copy is bad. No question. One way to circumvent the copyright problem is the slightly cloudier method of copying idea-for-idea. I see this in a lot of requests for proposal by people who want a end document that is almost identical to the source document but want to avoid the legal hassles of copyright infringement because you can’t copyright ideas, you can only copyright how those ideas are expressed (i.e. the words).

Idea-for-idea copy is where you simply restate the idea of the source document so that the information remains almost exactly the same but the words are different. This can be done at various levels — you can do it at the word level, at the sentence level, at the paragraph level, or at the section level.

At the word level: Let’s say your source document has a sentence like “financial representative” and you just search and replace any mention of financial representative with “investment advisor”. You find all the keywords and simply swap them out for synonyms.

At the sentence level: You just rewrite a sentence so the same information is communicated with different words. For example: “Buying your first home can be hard” can be switched to “It can be difficult to purchase a home if you have never done so before.”

… it’s the same no matter what “granularity” you use — whether restating sentences, paragraphs, or entire sections of a document.

Is this plagiarism? Well now it’s getting murky. Swapping out a couple of words for other words really is plagiarism even with the minor changes (and even if you don’t use all of the content). Remember: Word choice, scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience are going to be very similar.

It gets more complicated the more you change. At some point (and frankly I’m not sure what that point is), you move out of the realm of plagiarism and into the point where it is legal.

But is it ethical?

I’m not convinced.

Sure, your appearance might be slightly different (since you’re using different words and perhaps using different graphics and images) but everything else is nearly the same. Swapping out ideas for synonymous ideas doesn’t automatically change the scope or the tone. The message doesn’t change. And the audience hasn’t changed either.

The more granular your synonym swapping, the easier it is to spot. For example, if you are only swapping out the keywords for synonyms, it’s much easier to spot because many of the connecting words will still be original. If you are restating larger portions (like paragraphs), it’s harder to use technology to find it but someone can probably do a visual side-by-side comparison. It’s still plagiarism because you are still stealing the fundamental concepts of the original document even if you are changing the text.

SOURCE DOCUMENTS AS RESEARCH

Another way that you can use source documents is to use them as research. That is, you review the content from your source document, along with other content, and you create something original. Yes, your end document probably covers some of the similar pieces that your source document covered but the information is yours.

When you use source documents as research, you have control over the word choice scope, tone, appearance, message, and audience and you can make adjustments to those things as you go.

In my opinion, this is the very best way to create content and it is the way that I am paid by my clients to draw from source material. (Occasionally I will use wrappers and especially quotations but that’s really not how I get paid). It’s the way that causes the least number of headaches and worries — you won’t be kept up at night wondering if an angry attorney will waiting to slap a lawsuit on you.

As much as possible, I urge you to use your source documents in this way.

SOME FINAL THOUGHTS

Want to know why Biblical quotes in television shows or movies are almost always from the (very dated) King James Version of the Bible? It’s because that document is copyright free while most other Bibles are copyrighted translations owned by a publisher who will require permission before it can be used. So copyright free documents (and a relatively new concept of “uncopyrighted” documents) make this even more challenging. There is also a “Creative Commons” licensing movement that is growing to create new guidelines around how to use different kinds of content. The issue gets even trickier when you consider PLR (Private Label Rights) content that you can purchase that allows you to use the source material straight-up or with a specified amount of changes. It’s so complicated!

This is a spectrum — on the one side you have blatant copying; on the other side you have pure, original work. One is clearly wrong; the other is clearly right. But those aren’t your only two options. In the middle, it’s harder to navigate the murky waters. In my opinion, you can’t go wrong creating your own content and, when appropriate, quoting your source document and accurately attributing the quotes.

10 ebooks a lending or leasing professional should write

Lending and leasing professionals should offer some of these ebooks for free to help position them as experts in their market, or for sale to help generate a passive revenue stream.

  1. Leveraging: How to make money with borrowed money.
  2. How to improve your credit to get more money at a lower interest rate.
  3. How to understand a lending agreement (including: What clauses to watch out for and what a stated interest rate really means).
  4. A decision-making framework to determine whether someone should buy something outright or lease it.
  5. A borrower’s “101 guide” to understanding interest rates: What is interest, why does it fluctuate, etc.
  6. How to borrow money like a pro: Getting what you need, paying it back on time.
  7. Troubleshooting your loan: What happens if you forgot to pay; what happens if you are unable to pay, etc.
  8. How to be a loan officer/loan broker.
  9. Top tips and ideas to borrowing and paying it back from real borrowers.
  10. How to extend the life of your purchase (with care, maintenance, upkeep, upgrades, etc.)

10 ebooks a private equity professional or venture capitalist should write

Unlike many other professionals in the financial industry, private equity and venture capitalists have the unique benefit of not really needing to chase after clients – rather, they have the opposite problem of culling through a big list of potential clients to find the right ones. And in some cases, they might also have multiple audiences to consider: Prospective clients who are looking for capital, existing clients who already have capital, and joint venture investors who will be investing some of their capital.

  1. How to start a business.
  2. The investible business: How to build a business that VCs will WANT to invest in.
  3. The perfect pitch: How to create a sales pitch without the BS.
  4. Understanding corporate structures and share structures.
  5. A collection of case studies of your most successful investments and how your money helped to make the business great.
  6. How to evaluate companies as a VC or PE professional.
  7. A collection of top tips and ideas from VCs or PE professionals for business owners who hope to get capital for their company.
  8. How to work with a board of advisors.
  9. You’ve got some money from your VC… now what?!?
  10. How to become a private equity professional or venture capitalist.

10 ebooks a collections or accounts receivable professional should write

Professionals working with accounts receivables work with two groups of people – the departments or companies that are owed money and trying to get it collected (by using your services) and the people or businesses who are not paying. The ebooks presented below each address one of these two groups.

  1. Understanding credit and debt.
  2. Bankruptcy and alternatives.
  3. What happens when you owe money.
  4. How to make more money.
  5. How to save more money.
  6. How to protect your wealth.
  7. Risk management best practices to keep people from owing you money.
  8. 9 places in life where you are losing money.
  9. Top tips to help you pay back what you owe.
  10. How to succeed as a collections professional.

3 steps for real estate professionals to dominate local search

It doesn’t make much sense for someone to type in the word “real estate professional” or “REALTOR” and find your website or blog in the search results. If they’re in Dustytown, Australia and you’re in Wausau, Wisconsin, there’s not much you can do to help them.

So you need a plan to focus your search engine optimization on only your most likely prospects. So where do you start?

STEP 1: FIGURE OUT WHAT YOUR TARGET MARKET IS LOOKING FOR

Well, you first need to start by figuring out who your most likely prospects are. Are they people moving into town from out of town? Are they people buying or selling within town? Do you have an even more focused niche than that? (Hopefully you do).

Each of these groups is looking for something different.

If your target market is military families who are moving to Wausau, Wisconsin from elsewhere to work on the ultra-secret military base then they are searching the web for very different terms than if your target market is soccer moms and dads who are looking to sell their first home and upgrade because they have baby #3 on the way.

Figure out what your target market is looking for and the types of words they are using to search online.

STEP 2: GET THE SEARCH TERMS

Head over to Google’s Keyword Tool and type in some of those words into Google’s keyword search. In the example below, you see I’ve done that with the fairly generic term “Homes for sale Wausau Wisconsin”…

By the way: The key here is to combine an action verb — “buy home”, “sell home”, “list home”, “find home” — with a location — in this case “Wausau Wisconsin”. Don’t forget to try mixing words like “buy house” instead of “buy home” and also try the short form of your state instead of the full name (or, drop the state altogether and see what the results are).

When you click the Search button you get the result of your search…

And just below that, you get a big list of ideas that are similar to the terms you’ve written…

This list is useful because it shows you related keywords that people are searching for that you might be able to use.

Find a few that you want to focus on — somewhere between 3 and 6 keywords. If you help people buy AND list homes then consider focusing on 3 buying-specific keywords and 3 listing-specific keywords.

STEP 3: USE THOSE SEARCH TERMS EVERYWHERE

You’ve found the terms that your clients are looking for. Now it’s time to use those search terms everywhere. Use them in the following places:

  • In your website domain name
  • In your website title and subtitle
  • In the title of your blog posts and web pages
  • In your article marketing (in the title of the article and in the text)
  • In your press releases
  • In the title of your ebooks
  • In the title of your print book
  • As the name of your ezine
  • In the title of your Storify locally-focused stories
  • In your Twitter description
  • … and anywhere else that you put online and offline

Mix and match them. Pepper them throughout your work. “Own” the words by making your brand synonymous with those words.