justice.pngIt’s embarrassing the number of I’ve times had to explain: “copywriting” and “copyrights” have next to nothing to do with each other.

Not embarrassing for me, mind you, but for the guy who asks me how to protect the draft of his novel about high school from plagiarists.

However, I’m not giving the whole story here, because the two terms — ‘copyright’ and ‘copywrite’ — actually DO have a little something in common.

Let me explain by way of a note sent to me some time ago by copywriter Brad Grindrod…

“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 Nabakov, is in the details. But here’s the quandary:

What if someone else came up with those details first?

THE TRUTH ABOUT BORROWED WISDOM

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, it’s DIRECT and EXACT representing of someone else’s work as your own that puts you most at risk.

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 it’s 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 works, addressed in today’s “Missing Link”) — can actually INCREASE your credibility and legitimacy rather than threat 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 “essence” or outline of an idea?

Says Matt, “Ideas are NEVER legally safe. 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 this article up. 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 can you tell the difference between good research and going too far? Simple. If you feel like you’re cheating, you probably are.

Let the tingle in your spine be your guide.