Welcome to our first post in a new series we’re calling Content Creator Basics. Here, we’ll share our go-to tips for flexing your freelance writer muscles—whether you’re writing content for someone else or for your own blog. Check in each month for more tips to sharpen your online content writing skills.
Copyright law exists to protect creators’ rights to intellectual property. But while you probably know that direct copying is inappropriate, you might be confused about the copyright of concepts. Can you even copyright ideas? And if you can, then what kind of ideas count as intellectual property, and which similarities are just common knowledge or coincidence?
Today we take a deep dive into idea theft.
Can You Copyright Ideas?
It depends on how you define “idea.” Technically, copyright laws and general ethics protect the expression of ideas because it’s practically impossible to protect an idea that hasn’t been expressed. If you just have an idea in your head but haven’t brought it to life in any way, then that idea isn’t protected.
For example, when J. K. Rowling first thought of Harry Potter, she couldn’t have gone into the copyright office and registered for the rights to the Harry Potter book series because it didn’t exist yet. However, once she had a physical expression of her idea — a draft, her notes, and character sketches — she could claim legal rights to the characters, dialogue, plot, and so forth as manifested in her writing.
Do You Need Copyright Registration to Have Legal Rights?
Technically you don’t. You have intellectual property rights from the moment you create something. However, formal registration is the most reliable way to prove your claim.
For example, let’s say you have a manuscript for a novel on your hard drive. If one of your friends takes your idea and publishes your book under their own name, then you’ll need evidence that they stole your story. Otherwise, the courts can’t enforce your copyright.
How Broad Can Copyright Be?
You can’t copyright facts or very broad concepts. Many stories draw on similar ideas and themes, such as the hero’s journey. This repetition isn’t illegal or even unethical — but people can still claim that your work is derivative or repetitive.
For example, Rowling was clearly influenced by The Lord of the Rings, but because she reused broadly similar elements rather than Tolkien’s unique iteration, she didn’t plagiarize.
Likewise, many blogs about teeth whitening are similar. The internet hosts millions of teeth-whitening posts, and the facts are what they are. To plagiarize, you’d need to copy a piece’s unique combination of elements.
Such duplication is particularly easy to do with your own work, and self-plagiarism is often unintentional. For example, if you were to rewrite your own teeth-whitening blog to have different words and syntax but the same arguments and details, then you couldn’t ethically sell that work to a second client.
When you sell a blog to a client, you lose the right to reproduce that piece per the terms of your contract. Selling essentially the same blog to multiple clients is a violation of copyright.
How Do You Identify Idea Theft?
You identify idea theft on a case-by-case basis. With any two similar pieces, you have to carefully compare the combination of themes, characters, details, organization, syntax, and so forth and then decide whether something unique was duplicated.
In legal cases, the justice system decides how similar is too similar. For example, in Scholastic, Inc. v. Stouffer, author Nancy Stouffer claimed that J. K. Rowling copied Nancy Stouffer’s stories The Legend of Rah and the Muggles and Larry Potter and His Best Friend Lilly. Stouffer pointed to details like the word Muggles and to her character Larry Potter, who has dark hair and wears glasses.
However, the courts ruled in Scholastic’s favor, judging Stouffer’s and Rowling’s works to be markedly different from each other and the similarities to be coincidental.
In other cases, authorities like teachers, editors, and administrators decide how many similarities they tolerate.
Spotting duplicate content requires attention to detail, analysis, and a practiced eye. To learn more, check out our Plagiarism 101 post.