How to Use Other People’s Words and Not Plagiarize, Part 2

Many of us writers integrate other people's ideas. Or, we use those ideas as inspiration for our writing.

Can we avoid plagiarism and still acknowledge other people's work the right way? And, if you can, get “credit” for your “thought leadership?”

There's a lot there to unpack. Let's start with copyright.

Start with Your Copyright

As soon as you write something, you automatically have a copyright on it. Even if I didn't have a footer on this blog that established my copyright, the words would still be mine.

That's because copyright allows a writer to copyright the form of the words. I write in my own inimitable way. You write in your way. We write differently.

Writers: buy the Copyright Handbook. Why? Because if you ever sign a contract about your writing, you will learn which rights you want to keep—or relinquish. You can make educated choices.

In the US, a writer owns the copyright, (unless she assigns it in a contract) for the writer's life plus 70 years. (I'm pretty sure the worldwide copyright laws are similar. Some number of years past the writer's lifetime.)

That means you own your words. Your heirs own your words after you die.

If you own your words, how can anyone else “use” them? That's fair use.

Understand Fair Use

Here's what “fair use” means. You:

  • Can use some small number of other people's words under certain conditions.
  • Can't use too many of those words.
  • Must attribute or reference those words.

See The ‘Fair Use' Rule: When Use of Copyrighted Material Is Acceptable for many more details.

If you haven't read that article yet, let me quote something from it:

Rule 4: The More You Take, the Less Fair Your Use Is Likely to Be

Let me go meta for just a minute. Notice what I did:

  • Summarized the article in the first three bullets.
  • Pointed you to the reference.
  • Quoted fewer than 20 words (assuming I can count) from a much longer piece.

That's an example of fair use.

In the Modern Management Made Easy series, I quote snippets from many people. Each quote is one sentence or less. Sometimes, my quotes are snippets from longer sentences.

In the books, I offer real references, not what I did here with a link to the article. Here's a link to the AP Guide to how you might format references.

I wanted to make sure I abided by fair use ideas. I was able to do that because none of the works was short. Beware of shorter works.

Don't Quote Music Still in Copyright

What about shorter works, such as poetry or music?

There's almost no length you can quote. If a poem is 20 unique lines, I don't see how you can quote anything and still stay within fair use.

What about music?

Think about the number of unique lines in lyrics to many contemporary songs. Could you use any line in a song for your writing?

No. Don't even consider it. If you don't believe me, review who owns the copyright to those songs. Then, decide if you want to get into a copyright fight with those people.

What about music in the public domain? Research first. Read about public domain music, as in a site such as 7 Best Public Domain Music Sites. Then, decide what you want to do.

What About Epigraphs?

Some writers like to start their piece with a quote from someone else at the top of a section or chapter.

For example, all of Shakespeare's writing is now in the public domain. I might want to use the to be or not to be quote. In that case, I would use the exact words followed by the source:

“To be, or not to be: that is the question” (Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 1)

If you wanted to use words still in copyright, such as Weinberg's people problem quote, you could use this:

”No matter how it looks at first, it's always a people problem.” (Weinberg, Secrets of Consulting)

Aside from the epigraph, I would also list Secrets in the reference section of the book or article.

I don't use—and recommend against epigraphs. Why? Because the first thing your reader sees is someone else's quote. Would you invite someone over for supper and say, “Here's a menu from the famous sushi place. However, I made pizza. Enjoy!”

See, you and I are probably different. I hate epigraphs. You might love them. Only your readers matter.

Which brings me to the topic of how you integrate other people's words into your work with references.

Reference Other People's Work

Remember, copyright is about the form of someone else's words. When you use someone's exact words, create a reference for those words. If you don't, you plagiarize their words.

Back in the fair use section, I paraphrased the article I linked to a few lines down. I also quoted Rule 4.

I think it's pretty clear where I paraphrased and where I quoted. And, because this is online blog writing, the link to the article is good enough.

That's not enough for books or articles you might write. In those cases, do use a real reference.

For example, here's how I quoted from The Essential Drucker in Practical Ways to Lead an Innovative Organization:

Peter Drucker said this in The Essential Drucker [DRU01]:

”…every organization—not just businesses—needs one core competence: innovation.”

In the book, the DRU01 is a link to the bibliographic reference.

The reader can read that and decide if or when to investigate that reference.

My guidelines for referencing other people's work online:

  • If you want to use some of their words, and they have an article/post, create a link from those words to the article.
  • If you want to reference a published article or book, create a reference.

When in doubt, create a reference for words. What about ideas that inspire us? Do we reference them?

Refer to Other People's Ideas

You can tell that Jerry (Gerald M.) Weinberg influences much of my thinking and writing. I often refer to at least one of his books in any of my books.

I don't always refer to Jerry's ideas in my blog posts or articles. That's because I use his ideas, but not his words.

No one can copyright ideas. I've written a lot about rolling wave planning (a very early link). Here's a later link: rolling wave planning. I've applied these ideas to projects and programs.

Notice I called rolling wave planning “ideas.”

I can't copyright the three words, “rolling wave planning.” First, because I'm sure I didn't originate those words. Second, because it's not enough words to differentiate the words from reasonable use. Third, because that phrase is more like a title than a unique form of content. (Remember, copyright is about the form of the words. You can't copyright titles.)

In fact, I probably used Jerry's idea of every problem is a people problem as a starting point for this series.

Some people have problems crediting other people's unique words. Some people want to credit ideas instead of exact words. And, some people just don't know what to do and when.

I took that idea or people problems and used it, but not his exact words. That means I can't reference his work as a reference. I can, if I wish, add something like this at the end of the piece:

I used Weinberg's idea of every problem is a people problem (add a reference) here to start this piece.

You don't have to do that. You can.

However, if you want to get credit for your “thought leadership” you must reference other people's words.

Thought Leadership is an Oxymoron

Yeah, I said it. The whole idea of thought leadership doesn't make sense to me.

I do want people to find value in my writing. And, I'm sure I have unique ideas. (I know the rolling wave planning was a revolutionary idea for many people when I started to discuss it. So was release criteria).

The more you and I read, the more we expose ourselves to what other people think and write. If you and I are lucky, we make connections between disparate ideas. We have a Eureka moment!

We write about that Eureka moment—and discover someone else already has. That's because writers read about the current problems and write about them.

This where the more you write, the more you make these ideas yours. (See Part 1.) When we write from our unique perspective, we add value to these ideas.

If you want thought leadership credibility, write more about your experiences.

I'm not after thought leadership, per se. I want people to use my ideas because they work. (Well, they work for some people most of the time because these people share a context.) If you want to be a thought leader, go ahead. I write more, instead.

What if you, like Sam in Part 1, realize someone else is using your words for their “thought leadership?” This is where writing more really helps you, the originator of those words.

It's true, too many people want credit for work they haven't done. If you use the ideas in Part 1 to write more, you will get the credit and the thought leadership.

Reference Exact Words and Pictures

If you want to use someone else's words, use them, and create a real reference. Yes, always reference other people's words. Don't scrape pictures or text.

Or, consider the paraphrase. I often discover I learn more about the topic when I paraphrase someone else's words and add my explanation to the ideas. Make your own images.

Beware of referencing ideas. These ideas might influence you, but a reference without exact words creates doubts in a reader's mind. Does the writer really not think for him or herself?

If you really think you need to “copy” their words or pictures, ask permission. I often grant permission with a link back to the original words or picture, or a link to me in some way.

You can avoid plagiarism and still use other people's ideas.

This is a three-part series:

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