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…


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)


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.


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.


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.


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.

The unofficial guide to using

When something new comes out and you want to tell your friends about it, how do you present it to them? Do you use the press release format to announce the newsworthy event? Do you use an informational article format to explain what it is? Probably not.

You likely use stories. You tell your friends an enthusiastic, honest, hype-free, factual story about the product or service. is a place for you to tell those stories. It’s a place for new things to launch.

In this guide, you will learn about…

(Disclaimer: I am not affiliated with in any way nor am I compensated by them to write this. I’m just an enthusiastic user. Also, please note that is in beta so this information is subject to change.)

LAUNCH.IT: WHERE NEW IS LAUNCHED is a community platform that aims to be a searchable database of everything new. It is not just another place to create the same old content… they are pioneering a new way of communicating brands to the world.

  • On the publishing/promotional side, is a place to tell stories about new products and services and ideas: It’s not another press release distribution site; it’s not another article site. wants to be a “spin-free zone” where brands tell honest, fact-based, no-hype stories about whatever is new.
  • On the audience/readership side, is a place where readers can interact with the brand in multiple ways. It can include sharing on social sites, clicking to the site to make a purchase or learn more, participating in crowdfunding, contacting the brand, and more.

Unlike press releases and articles, stories (they call them “launches”) are more social, more focused on action, and they can be updated as facts change. I might not be 100% correct here but it feels like their site is aiming to be more like an engaging magazine that tells interesting, factual stories about new ideas rather than a newspaper that reports only the cold, hard facts.

As a writer, I’m interested in finding stories to cover. As an entrepreneur, I’m interested in telling the stories of new brands I develop. So here is an unofficial, unauthorized guide to launching your brand’s new idea from


The homepage is made up of a few different sections…

  • Across the the top is a menu of high-level categories that launches are filed under — Technology, Consumer Electronics, Fashion, Media, Medical and Pharma, Services, Food and Beverage, Health and Beauty. (There are other categories you can file your launch under but they don’t appear on this list).
  • Below that is a section of the top ten launches. I’m not sure how this is sorted (although I’m guessing it’s by number of visits or number of shares). To the right of these top-10 featured launches is a sidebar that includes a ticker/”odometer” of the number of launches, a featured launch, and a link to’s Facebook page.
  • Below that second is a section that lists 60 other launches in a 5 x 12 grid.


From the homepage (…

Click the “Sign Up” link to sign up (you can create an account or sign in with LinkedIn, Twitter, or Facebook). I created my own account.

From then on, click the “Login” link to get to the login page…

Once signed in, you’ll be directed back to the homepage but you’ll have two new links at the top of your page. These are the two main areas you’ll use on The Discoverer Dashboard and the Launcher Dashboard.

Here’s the Discoverer Dasboard:

Although mine doesn’t look very interesting right now (hey, I’m still new to, this page is your dashboard to follow industries, writers, and brands, and to save launches for later viewing. Right now I’m following just one industry (Finance) and the launches in that category appear in my news feed.

Keep reading below because I’ll share some ideas about what you can use this dashboard for!

The other dashboard is the Launcher Dashboard…

On this page, you can see at a glance a number of stats about your launches — how many launches, how many views, how many comments and followers, how many stars your launches have earned, plus there are links on the lower half of the page to your launches, to analytics, and more.

Next, I’m going to show you how to launch content on If you are already familiar with that, skip this section and check out some ideas to use to find stories or ideas to use to launch your own news.


From the Launcher Dashboard, click the great big button in the middle that says “new”…

And the next page you’ll get to is the page to create your launch story…

On this page…

Choose your byline from the drop-down menu. (It might be you or it might be other writers you’ve created, for example if you have several on staff who are sharing the same account).

Choose your brand from the drop-down menu. You can select your own brand (if you’re writing stories for your brand) or you can add new brands (if you own several brands or are a marketing firm).

Write your headline. Although the title can be pretty long, I would suggest that you try to keep it short because only the first 34-37 words will be displayed if your launch becomes featured. Check out the example below to see what I mean. Notice how the title is cut off a little? It’s not the end of the world, of course, but I think it would be more powerful if someone could read your entire title. So 34-37 words is the rule of thumb.

Write your subheading. Your subheading isn’t a reiteration of your headline but should instead provide additional information or context. Also note: Your subheading only shows up when someone views the blurb on its own page (it doesn’t show up in the condensed view on the home page) so make sure that the information is helpful but not essential to understanding your launch.

Write the body of your launch. This is the main content. I’m not sure how much space you have but presumably you have enough to get the story across. I would suggest aiming for a minimum of 400 words and a maximum of 1500 words. Too little and you’ll end up not getting your point across; too much and you’ll lose your readers. For more information, provides a brief but helpful guide.

Note: Another important thing to consider is the length of your first paragraph. If your launch becomes one of the top ten featured stories, they will post the first part of your first paragraph (about the first 40 words or so) so make sure you create good content in that first paragraph. Check out the first paragraph of the launch below as an example:

Select your industry. There are several to choose from. Pick one that makes the most sense.

Write your key message bullet points. These will appear in the sidebar of your story. I’m not sure how many you get to write. I wrote 3. I’ve seen 5. I think 3-5 is a good, digestible number for your readers.

Upload your lead image. Make your image 680×490. The image will appear in different sizes but always in that ratio. In some places, the image will be only about 27% of of the larger size (approximately 186 x 132) so make sure that your image is recognizable at that size too.

Add advanced features. Definitely add advanced features if you have them! These include video, links for buying/fundraising/contacting you, more images, etc. The more you add, the more visually attractive and engaging your content becomes. When it comes to interaction, select as many as you can — Give them a place to click to visit your website and a way to contact you.

Once you have filled everything out, you can save, preview, and publish your launch story and it goes immediately to the home page of Later, you can always go back to review and edit your launch story from the Launch Dashboard.


Once you have a launch launched, you can edit it. I love this feature of because (unlike press releases and some article publishing sites) information changes and you should be able to go back and update it. To edit your launch story, go to your Launcher Dashboard and at the top of the page, click the button labelled “Launches”…

(Note: There are other places on the page where you can click to view your launches but as of this writing, this is the only button that gets you to a place to edit your launches).

On this page, you’ll see the launches you have published, as well as links to edit, view, unpublish, and get analytics.


The Discoverer Dashboard is useful to filter the growing number of launches to keep track of what is important to you.

I love the idea of being able to follow industries, writers, and brands. I’m planning to use the Discoverer Dashboard in the following ways:

  • As a business, finance, and real estate writer, I’m going to follow related industries to pay attention to what’s going on in each space. The dashboard gives me the ability to filter by industry so I can quickly scan on a regular basis to find new ideas and trends.
  • As a writer, I’m always interested in connecting with other writers and learning how they are covering stories. This will give me a chance to meet experts in specific fields.
  • As a writer, I want to follow specific brands to see how they grow. They might be part of a story or trend I’m following or a competitor for one of the businesses I own, or the next big thing that I want to learn more about if I’m looking for a great idea for an article.


The Launcher Dashboard is where you create content to engage with your audiences about your new idea, brand, product, service, or whatever. So here are some ideas you can launch with:

  • Launch your new brand
  • Launch each product or service
  • Launch new versions of products and services
  • Launch the latest version of your website
  • Launch your mobile app
  • Launch your new store
  • Launch your new Facebook page, Twitter profile, etc.
  • Launch a news story about you (Remember: This isn’t a press release but you can still create a story about what’s new at your business)
  • Launch your email newsletter
  • Launch sub-brands
  • Launch partnerships and joint ventures
  • Launch your blog
  • Launch individual blog posts (within reason, of course! I’m not suggesting that you spam but there are times when an individual blog post is worth launching)
  • Launch a free report
  • Launch your ebook
  • Launch your print book
  • Launch your new location
  • Launch a story about that big project you landed
  • Launch when a new executive joins your team
  • Launch when you develop a new innovation
  • Launch a story that you hope to get some exposure about (we writers are watching!)
  • Launch your latest project for which you want investors/crowdfunders

So go!


Twitter: @Launch_It
Facebook: LaunchItNews

How to find more leads for your real estate or financial business

Real estate leads, Financial leads

In this business, your success is entirely dependent on leads. The more leads you have, the better. So where do you find these leads?


First, start with you.
List you all the different places in life where you interact with other people. These are called your “spheres of influence“. List as many spheres of influence that you have. (By the way, you probably have more than you realize).

Some common spheres of influence include:

  • Immediate family
  • Extended family (don’t ignore family who may not live nearby!)
  • Close friends
  • Friends
  • Acquaintances
  • Current co-workers
  • Previous co-workers (list all of your previous jobs)
  • Alumni (college and high school)
  • Church (past and present religious affiliations)
  • Charity connections
  • Other organizations (Toastmasters, etc.)
  • Online connections (Twitter followers, Facebook friends, people you frequently talk to in forums)
  • People you do business with (accountant, dry cleaner, mechanic, dentist, etc.)
  • Current clients
  • Past clients (past clients at your current job and past clients at your previous job… Just make sure that you are complying with any non-compete clauses if your are still in the same industry)

Second, list names
List all of the people by name in each sphere. Yes it will take a long time but the more time you spend being thorough right now, the more successful you will be later.

Third, gather contact information
Figure out how to get in touch with the people. If you know their number or email address or postal address, great! Collect it all into one place. I suggest a database of some kind.

Fourth, identify how you can help them
This step is optional but I think it helpful. Figure out how you can help them. If you’re a real estate professional and they are renters, you’ll likely be able to help them buy their first home. If you’re a financial advisor and they are near to retirement, you’ll likely be able to help them transition their portfolio into safer, income-producing investments while minimizing tax consequences.

If you really want to improve your odds, check out this blog post: 6 sales funnel tips for real estate professionals (it applies to financial professionals, too!)

Fifth, get in touch with them
Using whatever method you have identified (face-to-face, phone, email, or postal mail), get in touch with your contact and let them know what you do and make a recommendation about how you’d like to help them.

Chances are, one of the following things will happen:

  • They will become your client
  • They will hedge a little; they won’t commit, and they’ll tell you that they’ll think about it
  • They will tell you no
  • You won’t reach them or they won’t respond

If they become your client, that’s great. Congratulations! However, most people will fall into the second category and some people will fall into the third category. In those situations, thank them and let them know that if anything changes, you’d love to help them. Ask them for permission to stay in touch and collect any contact information you don’t have (so you can email or mail them something). Don’t delete the ones who never responded; just keep them on file and from time to time reach out to them.


Now that you have this list started, it’s time to generate even more leads. Here are three ways:

  • Add another sphere of influence. Join a group, join the gym, get involved in a new organization, volunteer for a charity, etc.
  • For each of your leads (yes, that big list you just created earlier in this blog post), do the same exercise and write down THEIR spheres of influence. Sure, you might not know their names but just get down the spheres of influence first. Then create a strategy to approach those people and make a request like: “Can you put up my business card on the bulletin board at your work?” or “can I put on a presentation about insurance in the lunch room at your office?” Make sure to keep the request easy for them to do. Remember: They won’t agree to anything that makes them uncomfortable!
  • You probably already have a website that is geared to people who are ready to become clients. (Most real estate and financial professionals have a site like this). Move up your sales funnel and create content that is geared toward lead generation instead of prospect conversion. For example, a real estate professional might want to create content that answers some earlier stage questions like “should I buy a home right now?”. You can do this on your own site, or start another site, or use internet marketing (like articles and press releases and social media) to help you drive traffic to your website.

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?


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.


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.


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.

Is the ‘CSI effect’ hindering your success?

If you are a financial advisor or real estate professional, a condition very similar to “the CSI effect” could be hindering your success.


The CSI effect is a problem faced by the justice system when juries place too much faith in fingerprints and DNA evidence. It’s called “the CSI effect” to suggest that forensic shows like CSI (and others) are tainting real-life juries by making them believe that forensic evidence is easy to obtain, can be processed by a lab in hours, and decisive beyond a shadow-of-a-doubt.

Although the CSI effect is just a hypothesis, it does raise the issue that today’s media might be making everyone an expert.


You might not be prosecuting criminals but you might be impacted by the CSI effect anyway… or, at least something similar. Our prospective clients have access to all kinds of information — from us and from others; on TV and the web. There is no shortage to the information that they can access.

Unfortunately, it has made “amateur experts” out of many clients, turning naive homebuyers into superstar DIY real estate agents and untrained investors into the next Jim Cramer.

Let me be clear about something before you read any further: Savvy clients are good. I’m not proposing that financial and real estate professionals would be better off with clients who couldn’t tell their left hand from their right hand. The root of the problem is NOT that they have access to lots of information to make better decisions. Rather, the root of the problem is that they have no filter to help them navigate the complicated world of real estate or investing.

They’ve been empowered and informed but not equipped.

The result is: Real estate professionals are finding lots of people going the list-it-themselves route or are assuming that they are expert househunters. And financial advisors are finding lots of people who leave voicemails on the advisors’ office overnight because of some great stocks they found while browsing online.


This is tricky. You don’t want to belittle them by telling them that what they know is wrong, nor do you really want to validate that their unsorted knowledge is a replacement for your expertise.

What clients really need is structure. They need decision-making systems. They need rules. They need ways to synthesize their information. They need frames. They need order. They need taxonomies. They need context. They need the bigger picture.

Right now, your clients are looking at splotches of paint on canvas; you need to help them step back and see the entire painting.

Here are some ways to work with your clients to counter the CSI effect:

  • When writing your blog, make sure you use categories (or some other sorting system) that make sense in the bigger picture.
  • In all of your marketing, make sure to highlight that the one piece of information you’re expressing is a single cog in a giant piece of machinery.
  • Prepare information, verbal and written responses, and proactive marketing to address the reality that some of your clients will tell you about something they saw on TV or the web that doesn’t mesh with what you do. (For example, a normally conservative investor tells a financial advisor about a speculative stock they just heard about from a friend on Facebook).
  • If you’re looking for a great idea for your next downloadable document, consider a “big picture” ebook that your users can use to sort out the huge, unsorted mass of information available to them on the web.

I believe the CSI effect is real… and it’s affecting more than just the justice system. I think many of my financial and real estate clients are facing a similar situation.

But I also think that this is an opportunity for you! Rather than joining the ranks of real estate and financial advisors who ONLY give out unsorted, unfiltered information, why not become the professional who helps prospective clients MAKE SENSE OF IT ALL.