What Copywriters Should Know About Copyrights

It’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?


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.



  1. You might not be surprised to know the times I’ve told people I’m a copywriter, not realising they thought I meant copyrighter.

    So now I just tell them I’m a marketing consultant who writes junk mail, as well.


  2. I’ve gone the other way… when I get that confused look, I just tell them I’m the guy hired to draw that little © symbol next to the printing date.

  3. I’m writing a book, I’ve done A LOT of research, I’ve used alot of ideas – but I give credit, I cite the person or book or article that I got it from – even if I put it in my own words. Do I still need to ring them up and get their permission to quote them? I heard that is true only if you use more than a page.

    I’ve gone through books and wrote up lists of things from the books but did not use the info in the same way they did in their book, nor did I copy word for word their writing, but I did feel a little bad taking down lists of symptoms they obviously did a lot of work on – but I’m the one who came up with the brilliant idea to use those symptoms in a whole new (helpful) way. I thought rather than cite, that I would say, “This work is strongly influenced and inspired by ‘author who wrote book'” and that way they are still mentioned even if I haven’t quoted them directly.

    You’d think that if you cited properly you’re actually giving them FREE Advertising in your book, and you’re adding to their expert status. They say the greatest form of flattery is copying them.

    copyRIGHT is your Rights, copyWRITE is your writing copy. Why do they call copy, copy anyway, why not call it an ad or sales page? Where did the word copy come from? Maybe because it’s all just copied from someone else…….. (just kidding.)
    (very green newbie)

  4. @JP Bailey, MA: HI JP… Lots of great innovation is built on top of someone else’s great ideas. And a Google-search of “fair use” would probably answer a lot of your questions, too. But yes, the safe default is to AT LEAST make sure you mention who it is you’re paraphrasing. Even better is the general guideline for most normally-motivated folk (and you sound like one), which is that if you feel uneasy about how much derivative thinking you plan to use, it’s probably best to contact the source directly and ask. Most authors will agree with you on the value of the free advertising you’re giving their work. Also note that “fair use” is different in commercial speech like advertising. Generally, the closer you get to actually making money or selling something of your own with someone else’s idea, the more meticulous you need to be about citing your sources. re: Why “copy” is called copy… hmm… I’m not sure, but I bet it’s one of those interesting stories we’d all love to hear. I’ll look into it!

  5. @ first comment. Yes that happens so often. Is copywriting that little known that we’re confused with copyrighters?

    But otherwise great post. Thanks. Im a firm believer in idea ownership.

  6. Copywriter Johannesburg » I kid you not, it happens. I’ve had people ask me how they can protect a story idea or a song they wrote. I tell them that all I do is draw the little circle around the “c” and leave the rest to someone else.

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