Several days ago I was contacted by fellow freelance writer, Luana Spinetti. She wrote to thank me for a recent post on my business writing blog — one where I talked about the risks business owners take on in hiring bottom-of-the-barrel content writers.
In that post I talked a bit about plagiarism and how passing a plagiarism checker (like Copyscape) in no way meant articles were ethically, or legally, written. That’s because those tools can’t generally separate original and derivative works. And derivative works (“spinning,” translating someone else’s articles for publication, rewriting text with the same structure and ideas, etc.) is still copyright infringement.
The post caught Luana’s attention and she realized she’d unintentionally plagiarized the work of others when she was starting out as a freelance writer. In her case she would use the format or structure of someone’s content as a basis for her own — essentially just rewriting the text of the main points. She also re-used their images.
In Luana’s defense, as soon as she realized her mistake, she did something about it. She contacted the client where the incidences occurred and she offered to fix every case of plagiarism for them.
Unfortunately many other writers don’t step up like that. It’s bad enough that folks get into freelancing without understanding such a huge legal issue. What’s worse is that many people in that bottom-of-the-barrel group don’t care. They do it intentionally, and it’s how they can afford to charge next to nothing.
Here we don’t care about those pseudo-writers. But we do care about new freelancers who are trying to learn the ropes, and who sometimes make mistakes in the process. Today I’d like to share some information that should help other new freelance writers avoid the kinds of mistakes Luana faced.
A Note on International Client-Writer Relationships
First a bit of background. Freelance writing opportunities have increased for many writers thanks to the Web. It’s easier to build your presence and find clients — all over the world. Sometimes that means copyright laws where you live, and those where clients live will differ. In that case, which rules should you follow?
My suggestion (and of course I’m not a lawyer — I don’t even play one on this blog) is that you should always choose the more conservative option. In other words if it’s legal in one country and not in the other, don’t do it. Make sure it’s legal in both.
I suggest this because you never know who might sue and who they might go after (and which rules would apply in that case). Doing something that’s inherently dishonest anyway is never worthwhile. You put yourself at risk. And you put your client at risk. That simply isn’t something a professional does.
4 Ways to Make Sure Your Writing is Original
If you’re concerned that your writing might cross the line, making you unintentionally guilty of plagiarism, consider following these tips in the future. They’ll help you create more original work.
- Always use more than one source in your research. – The only time where you might write from a single source is when you’re writing about your own experiences, sharing a personal story. With everything else, refer to multiple sources to avoid having it look like you just rewrote someone else’s content.
- Cite those sources. – Whether someone sparked the idea for your article or you plan to quote them directly, it’s always a good idea to cite sources. Quote directly when possible. And if you paraphrase, don’t forget to mention the source there as well. If it’s a case of wanting to protect a source’s privacy, ask them if they wanted to be cited or not first (which is what I did for this post before sharing a bit of Luana’s story).
- Don’t “quote” large portions of someone else’s work. – The more you use, the bigger the chance that your use doesn’t fall under “fair use” standards (in the U.S. — check your own country’s rules on such things). There’s no specific cut-off, but you can think of it in a couple of ways. Would your use impede the owner’s ability to use that work later (such as stealing an image which could later hurt their license sales)? If so, don’t do it. And would your use give away the bulk of the author’s points or even their most important points, where your readers would have no reason to read the full source material? Again, if so, don’t do it.
- Bring a bit of yourself into your writing. – One of the best ways to make sure your work is original is to share original ideas or personal thoughts and commentary. For example, rather than stating a bunch of facts and leaving it at that, you might write your article from a specific viewpoint where you can share your opinions or interpretations. You don’t have to be the only person with the opinion for the work to be original. It’s all in how you express yourself.
It’s important to remember that there are consequences even when you don’t cross the line into copyright infringement. For example, ideas can’t be copyrighted. But if you regularly steal blog post ideas from another site or two, people notice and talk. It’s not illegal. But to the people you’re swiping from, it’s likely to be perceived as unethical. You’ll ruin your reputation.
If you write for clients and swipe your idea list from their biggest competitor, they’re likely to notice too. And so might their readers. In that case you aren’t the only one who could look bad. Again, it’s not worth the risk of bad PR for you or your client.
Come up with your own material. Share your personal thoughts and ideas. And don’t limit your sources to the point of research becoming unintentional plagiarism.
What other tips would you offer new freelance writers who are worried about unintentionally plagiarizing their sources? How much is too much to quote in your view? When do you ask for permission as opposed to just citing your source? Share your thoughts in the comments.