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Copyright Confusion – Ask Anne

   In comments Mona asked

How do I ever come to know that I have violated copyright.The other day I was planning to post on the International Women’s Day.

I was intrigued to see that my draft resembles some thing on the subject someone else had posted on another site. I didn’t post because I was afraid I might be infringing on someone else’s copyright. What can I do? (Comment edited here for clarity.)

Hi Mona, 

Dictionary.com defines copyright this way

the exclusive right to make copies, license, and otherwise exploit a literary, musical, or
artistic work,whether printed, audio, video, etc

If I understand your question you didn’t copy the article on the other site, but wrote your own article and then found the other. If that’s the case you didn’t or wouldn’t violate anyone’s copyright if you published it because you didn’t copy it.

The truth is we often write blog posts or articles that cover the same topic as someone else. When this happens there’s no violation of copyright.

It also helps to know that an idea cannot be copyrighted. Period.

It may also help to know that you don’t have to file a copyright notice to own a copyright. It’s implied. You can strengthen your case by adding a copyright notice, but you don’t have to.

Derivative works

It gets a bit more tricky when you’re talking about derivative works – that is when you draw on another’s work. Here’s the definition by the U.S. Copyright Act which I found at Wikipedia.

A “derivative work” is a work based upon one or more preexisting works, such as a translation, musical arrangement, dramatization, fictionalization, motion picture version, sound recording, art reproduction, abridgment, condensation, or any other form in which a work may be recast, transformed, or adapted. A work consisting of editorial revisions, annotations, elaborations, or other modifications which, as a whole, represent an original work of authorship, is a “derivative work”.

Although I’m not a lawyer or a copyright expert, I understand this to mean that if you had first gone to the site and read someone’s article and then rewritten using many of their ideas  it you very well might be in violation of their copyright. It would depend on how much you added to it, how much of your own thinking and research and experience you brought to it.

If, on the other hand you’d read in a blog that it was in fact International Women’s Day and decided to write an article about the day, you probably wouldn’t have been in violation.

Be polite

Although there is no legal requirement for you do have done so, if you’d posted the article you wrote because you learned it was a special day from another blog, it would have been nice to say something like “Paula’s post reminded me that today is International Woman’s Day – and link to her post, then go on and write your own thoughts on the subject.

In fact the easiest way to annoy other bloggers and even damage your own reputation as a blogger is to search blogs for ideas, then write about them without giving any credit, even if you’re not required to.  It’s far better to give credit even when it isn’t required, than not to.

It can be difficult for the reader to tell if Blogger A actually stole an idea from Blogger B. If you are regularly in the habit of giving credit to others you’re unlikely to get tarred with that brush.

What do you think? Have you had any of your work stolen? What did you do? Have you ever failed to give credit when you probably should have? Can you go back and fix it? What’s your understanding of copyrights and derivative works? Talk to us in comments.

If you’ve got a question about freelance writing, send it to me and I’ll do my best to answer it here.


Image: AttributionShare Alike Some rights reserved by opensourceway

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{ 8 comments… add one }
  • Interesting sites… who do you find is willing to pay for the service?

  • Thank you so much for bringing attention to the important issue of copyright. It can be difficult to figure out what’s fair use, what’s a derivative work and how to what we find on the web in our own work.

    We’re trying to make this easier to under on our blog as part of our mission to make the world safe for creativity so you can own your work and own your future. Let us know if you find the posts on our blog helpful that are for creatives, freelancers and their clients.

  • Using a press release is a great idea, Jenn. And you’re right about holidays and other events resulting in lots of writing on those topics, some of which is bound to be similar.

  • Yes, lyrics are a whole other case. Quotes and fair use are fairly squishy – the 300 word guideline really has no basis in law as I understand it. Mostly in this post I was responding to some obvious confusion about the bare bones of copyright law.

    Thanks for the link to the hp article.

  • Amandah, scraping is really a whole other issue… I’m sure the scrapers know they are violating copyrights. Glad you’ve gotten some of them to take you’re content off… I’ve been able to do that too.

  • In this case I wouldn’t worry about it. Whenever holidays or other special days come around, you can expect to find a lot of similar content being published. As long as you didn’t use a single source as a basis for your article, you should be fine. Even then, you might use something like a press release (which you’re allowed to use as the basis for a story — that’s their purpose). In that case you’re fine with a derivative work, and it’s even more likely that others will have very similar articles because they’d be based on that same source.
    Jenn Mattern recently posted..Get Productive and Increase Your Writing IncomeMy Profile

  • Hello,

    I forgot to mention that it’s important to get permission if you include a substantial amount of another person’s work into your writing or if your ghostwriting a book. When in doubt, ask a copyright lawyer/attorney.

    Of course, it’s always best to use as little as possible of another person’s work, less than 10%. Do you research and draw your own conclusions. Use your OWN words. Remember, science and facts are not copyrighted

    Check out http://www.huffingtonpost.com/bernard-starr/self-publishing_b_2340231.html

    Finally, I believe editors like to use less than 300 words when quoting from a source. Some go by the length of the work. But there isn’t a set standard.


    Quoting lyrics from a song or poem is another issue. 🙂 It can be tricky business.
    Amandah recently posted..Bad Content Writing? How to Tell if Your Content Writing Stinks — Break FreeMy Profile

  • Amandahblackwell

    Hi Anne,

    I’ve had my blog posts scraped and my clients have had their posts scraped too. My clients contacted the blog owners, and some of them gave them a link or removed it or ignored the request to remove the posts.

    I’m ghostwriting a book and have to research it to back up data. I have Sources Cited and End Notes.

    The way I approach writing is how I wrote my research papers for college. I had to follow the APA or MLA guidelines and give credit if I paraphrased or used text from a source. How else could we write a non-fiction book or eBook? We need to research.

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