What’s Plagiarism When Ideas Can’t Be Copyrighted?

plaigerizeIf you kick around the blogosphere for long, particularly where writers write about writing and blogging you’ll soon hear rumbles about how one blogger steals the ideas of another.

It gets murky because in the United States at least, ideas can’t be copyrighted. (By the way, that includes book titles.) The reasons are pretty obvious. If I could copyright an idea about say writing fees that would mean, at least in theory, that you couldn’t do an article on the same idea.

Plagiarism, on the other hand, is pretty clear. Dictionary.com defines it this way:

1. an act or instance of using or closely imitating the language and thoughts of another author without authorization and the representation of that author’s work as one’s own, as by not crediting the original author: It is said that he plagiarized Thoreau’s plagiarism of a line written by Montaigne. Synonyms: appropriation, infringement, piracy, counterfeiting; theft, borrowing, cribbing, passing off.

2. a piece of writing or other work reflecting such unauthorized use or imitation: “These two manuscripts are clearly plagiarisms,” the editor said, tossing them angrily on the floor.

Credit where credit is due

I got to thinking about this when I wrote 1 Powerful Way Writers (& Others) Can Improve Their Self-Worth & Make More MoneyI wrote it because someone asked me to write more on the topic and I completely forgot that Lori Widmer created her Writers Worth Day (which now runs at least a week) and sells her ebook, The Worthy Writer’s Guide to Building a Better Business

Was I copying her? Absolutely not. She doesn’t ‘own’ the idea of self-worth any more than I do. But I have been involved with her promotion and have participated in it. That’s why, when I did remember, I went back and added an acknowledgement to her, complete with links.

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In another example, awhile back I wrote ‘Round-the-World Copyright – Is It Possible? In this case, Cathy Miller had written Could Your Photo Use Cost You Big Time? It got me wondering about copyright outside the U.S. If you read my post you’ll see I credited her even though I didn’t have to.If you know where you got an idea, consider how what you’re writing or doing might impact them. If you’re not sure, ask them. I did that when I took the idea from Cathy – I sent her an email asking if she was going to address world-around copyright. Her reply was, as I recall, ‘go for it!’

It’s far better to give credit even if you don’t need to, than not. Being free with attribution actually makes you look trustworthy – a good thing indeed.

Ideas may be in the air

Then there are those times when I come up with an idea, write it, and discover that someone else also wrote about the same topic – very much the same topic. Apparently it’s not as unusual for ideas to be in the air as you might think. Philipp Lenssen wrote Sometimes Ideas Are in the Air referring to a New Yorker article that documents how often scientific ideas show up in what they call multiples – similar ideas appearing to more than one person.

I keep this in mind when I stumble into someone who has written something similar to one of my posts or articles. Sure there have been times when one blogger or another seems to have ‘copied’ my idea, but even if they did there’s not a darn thing I can do about it. Unless they actually use my words, I have to chalk it up to ideas in the air.

This is just one of the topics that’s been kicked around in the 5 Buck Forum at About Writing Squared. You too can become a member, just sign up here and you’re all set.

Write well and often,

Anne Wayman


Image: Some rights reserved by kirinqueen

Motivation and the Freelancer

Walkers pace themselves along the boardwalk that lines the north side of the Manayunk Canal in Manayunk PA. 2008-01-13.Maybe it’s just me, but when the list of things to do gets longer, I find motivation I didn’t know existed. For example, today I have one project on my list, and I’ve not touched it. And it’s nearly 3 pm.

It could be the reason is the deadline is a few weeks away and I’m writing the story in my head. That’s partially true, but the larger truth is I’ve just come off a marathon year of work and I’m enjoying the slower pace, perhaps a little too much. So I took today to work on projects I’ve put off for too long.

Tomorrow I have to get back to that project. I know once I put fingers to the keyboard, it will come easily. It’s just that first step that’s stalling me.

Many of us are like that – looking for motivation and a reason to get those projects or that marketing finished (or even started). For me, there are a few things I do to push me in the right direction.

Create arbitrary deadlines. I’ll admit to doing this with things like putting away Christmas decorations or taking things to Goodwill. The same goes for projects. I’ll attach a deadline to it. I’m fortunate that I fixate on deadlines. So if I think it, it’s like the Mayan calendar – fixed in stone.
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