Secrets of a Master:
How To Borrow Ideas Without Breaking the Law

"So what do you do again?" asked a friendly real-estate agent at the next table.

"I'm a copywriter."

"A … copyright … uh … you mean with books and stuff?"

"Yeah, that's right," I replied.

Sigh. Like the rest, he'd gotten the wrong idea. But who was I to set him straight?

I told him: "It's my job to draw the tiny little "(c)" in front of a publication date. Very dangerous work."

I don't know about you, but this mix-up in terms happens to me all the time.

You'd think people would know more about copywriters and what they do … especially given the impact we have on their lives!

Alas, it isn't meant to be. However, the two terms – "copyright" and "copywrite" – DO have something important in common. Through no small coincidence, it's this shared bond we'll focus on today …

AWAI student and budding copywriter Brad Grindrod writes:

"When I'm writing a promotion, I've got a ton of material I've gathered to support the claims in my letter. But I'm just not sure if or how I can legally use it."

First, some kudos for Brad. Gathering a ton of research, in my opinion, is the right place to start. And not just for writing promo copy.

Magazine articles, novels, screenplays … all benefit from deep research.

Divinity, said Nabokov, is in the details. But here's the quandary:

What if someone else came up with those details first?

Let's start with terminology. What, exactly, IS copyright infringement?

Matt Turner, an old college buddy and senior lawyer for a major publishing company, lays it on the line: "In the context of the written word, copyright infringement is literally stealing (i.e., "copying") someone else's words without permission," says Matt, "however, ideas themselves aren't copyrightable."

This, obviously, is a controversial point.

In the shortest terms, what puts you most at risk is representing someone else's work DIRECTLY and EXACTLY as your own.

CLEAR SO FAR?

After you've got the simple concept clear in your mind … enter the nuances, stage right.

For instance, JOURNALISTIC and COMMERCIAL speech do NOT have the same freedoms.

Matt explains: "In commercial speech, the law is not as favorable to the writer … advertising copy is commercial speech, since its aim is to sell."

So, what's that mean?

It does NOT mean that you're barred from citing great stats or famous quotes. In fact, quite the opposite.

A good citation or borrowed anecdote – provided you don't violate "fair use" laws (another can of worms) – can actually INCREASE your credibility and legitimacy rather than threaten it.

The big difference between journalism and promo writing, says Matt, is the use of images and photos. INCLUDING, by the way, those photos for which you can buy the rights:

"You can't use someone's photo to sell something without his permission. On the other hand, you CAN use the same photo in a new story or editorial. Because it's news, not the key element of a sales pitch."

Okay, that seems pretty clear, yes? So what about data and stats?

"Pure data has little or no copyright protection, either. You can't and shouldn't just steal a chart outright. However, if the information you're using is something publicly observable that someone took the time to gather … and you find your own way to represent it …you should be fine."

What about the slightly sticky area of the "essence" or outline of an idea?

"Ideas are NEVER legally safe," says Matt. "It's only the actual expression of the idea that's protected."

Phew … it sounds like an intellectual free-for-all! But don't lick your chops just yet, you unscrupulous mongrel: "Stealing someone's work can cost you plenty," warns Matt, "especially if it can be shown you cut into their business by taking their words."

Lengthwise, I'm overdue to wrap up this article. Yet I feel we've barely scratched the surface.

Maybe I can summarize:

Yes, Brad, there IS a copyright clause. You'll stumble across it any time you sit down to research or write.

But worry not.

Even in promo copy, you can STILL use data to punch up your points … you CAN use quotes that fortify credibility … you can EVEN make vigorous adaptations of one or two borrowed ideas along the way.

HOWEVER, keep this in mind too …

Stealing material outright is different.

How so? If you feel like you're cheating, you probably are. Let the tingle in your spine be your guide.

There's a lot more to say on this topic. But probably more than I'm comfortable writing about … or you're interested enough to read.

However, if you're eager for more, be sure to check out "10 Popular Copyright Myths" – a (freely available) article posted on the web by another lawyer who's also spilling over with insights to share. (Typical of those guys, eh?) Visit: http://www.templetons.com/brad/copymyths.html

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Published: December 23, 2002

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