Subscribe to industry newsletters

Advertise on Bizcommunity

Whaaat?!? You copied my copy?

In 10 years of full-time copywriting, I've had copy stolen three times. To clarify, I'm not talking about a short paragraph here and a sentence there. I'm talking about dense, concrete chunks. Blocks of (unattributed, un-linked, un-referenced) writing in a style so distinctively mine I'd know it anywhere. So communicators and creatives, take note: I have some advice for you.
My copy was stolen...

1. Twice by 'friends' and once by a stranger
2. Twice by 'writers' and once by a wannabe
3. Twice for profit and once for 'marketing'

What do all three instances of plagiarism have in common? All three of the copy thieves presented themselves as communicators. As people who should, on their own and without 'borrowing', be able to generate original content.

The first time I wuz robbed I wrote it off. Decided not to make a thing of it and stopped investing in the friend. The second time I stewed for ages, effected an unsatisfying confrontation and stopped investing in the friend. And the third time I got pi$$ed off and invested in a lawyer's letter. That was satisfying.

Communicators, take note:

1. Wholesale reproduction

If you reproduce someone's copy, change a few words here and there and present it as yours, that's stealing. I don't care what the copyright laws stipulate. You're a writer: you're obliged to come up with your own stuff.

If you're incapable of drumming up an original phrase, thought or idea, here's a gentle suggestion: how about some lovely call centre work instead?

As an aside: The first of my textual pickpockets took my bio, changed my name to his and used it on his blog. Even going so far as to inadvertently include memberships he didn't have, because my bio had them. Lame.

2. Friendly borrowing

If you 'borrow' copy from more experienced friends, without asking them, it will make them cross. Especially if they've been generous with you in the past.

Reach out. Ask for the help. Bribe them with paleo-friendly biscuits (red velvet is so last season.) Worst case, they say No. Best case, they help you to come up with your own, so you know how to do it next time. Granted, they may think you're a tad slow, but that's what friends are for. Supposedly.

As an aside: The second of my textual pickpockets accepted a stack of carefully created business documents and templates from me, based on my own trial, error and hard work, and - mere weeks later - pasted meta-data from my website into the back-end of hers. Verbatim. How stupid was I?

3. Idea misappropriation

If you read something and think 'Hey, that's a clever gimmick,' don't immediately use the same gimmick. It's theft. Maybe not in the legal sense, but Karma is a bitch and she will bite you. Hard. In a soft spot.

They say there's nothing new under the sun. Maybe that's true. But there's a lovely resource out there - Google - and if it's not too daunting, perhaps you could try to do a bit of research to come up with a gimmick of your own? Or, at least, one that isn't immediately identifiable as someone else's.

As an aside: The third, and worst, of my textual pickpockets must have really liked the (un-wonderful, but this was 2005) 'Kings & Queens' analogy I used to theme a grammar training course. Because she and her popular Joburg-based writing company stole it - giving their programme an identical name.

Luckily they proved to be crappy presenters, especially of unfamiliar content.

If you're gonna do this, make sure you're at least as good as - if not better than - the person you're 'flattering' with your copy-paste. (But if you were, you'd probably come up with your own stuff to start with. So much for that.)

What about being inspired by others?

This happens. You read something or see something and you like the style, tone, idea - whatever. It inspires you to do something along similar lines. Fine. Inspiration is all very well and good. But be honest with yourself. You're not a moron, hopefully. You know when you've been scaly and when you haven't.

What about just absorbing stuff?

There's a lot of stuff out there and we all read, share and comment prolifically. It's possible that, amidst all that rabid consumption, some of it sticks and you, mistakenly, parrot someone else's originality. But - let's be frank - you're not eidetic. You don't enjoy total recall. So if it's more than a sentence or a vague idea that you're repeating and claiming ownership of, think again.

And before I sign off, remember:

No-one likes a cheat. Meditate. Do some deep breathing. Doodle. Draw a pretty mind map. Try to dredge a unique notion up from the depths. If nothing emerges - well, that's life, bucko. But watch your back for Karma.

About Tiffany Markman

Tiffany Markman is a highly opinionated copywriter, copy editor and writing trainer who has worked for over 300 clients worldwide. She hates misplaced apostrophes, old-fashioned business writing and the word ‘revert'. She loves generous paragraphing, art, skulls and black coffee. Read more at, email , follow @tiffanymarkman on Twitter and sign up for her newsletter.
Paddy Hartdegen
Hi Tiffany and you followers,If you think it's bad that people steal your copy try having a book and a play stolen. A university in Pretoria is using one of my plays for students. It's photocopied and handed out (maybe sold) to them. A student asked me if I was the same person who wrote the play and that's how I found out. The book is another, more complicated story but it made the publisher enough money to enjoy life and left me frustrated and angry. People steal because they are idle, lazy and mostly just stupid.P
Posted on 24 Jul 2013 06:37
Martin Hugo
Haha I wrote an Emo poem as a joke and posted it onto a website called the Emo Poetry corner- I went there a while ago and saw it was slightly modified and used as an example of what Emo poetry is. I didn't mind them stealing it, but the changes were really terrible.
Posted on 24 Jul 2013 14:23
Fezile Nomzamo Phungwayo
ok ok i would like to believe that we have all had our fair share of "stealing " primary, high school and university with out acknowledging the author, but however, if you continue to steal also at in ur profession and presenting the stolen work as yours , then you only killing urself but also ur career in its entirety be it if you are a copywriter , creative,consultant , business woman , u killing urself because u lack authenticity!nice piece Tiffany ! To all stealers we see you *wears spy glasses*
Posted on 24 Jul 2013 15:21
Carl Judas Piek
Selective use of your conscience seems to be route cause of this most heinous of crimes! However, the prefix in COPY writing suggests the nature of the profession and I was disgusted when first working within the field. Easy copy come, easy copy go.
Posted on 25 Jul 2013 00:08
pumi M
Hey,check this out...My Soccer-and-Rugby-Game-Taking-Place-In-One-Stadium Idea or concept or whatever you wanna call it has been stolen and is now used by the Sports Ministry as their good did without crediting the creative behind it......And I know who stole it....
Posted on 25 Jul 2013 07:29
Simon Roche
The part with which I battle is that plagiarists tend, by-and-large, to be poor writers at the best of times yet they remain employed. I struggle to understand why employers retain mediocre talent which lives epizoically off its neighbours.I dunno... but the two have seemed to me inextricably linked, in practise. Another thing, why don't you professional copy-writers copyright your stuff, man? I mean, honestly! Plagiarism in your domain is thousands of years old and yet you STILL don't put bullying caveats in nice tidy print referring to the Copyright Act 98 of 1978. No offense, but you ALMOST deserve it, because it doesn't cost a cent and can be embedded in your Word & PPoint templates ad infinitum, so it is not even like it is hard work for you. Copyright caveats, especially if they are cleverly, but politely, written at the beginning of a document, work.
Posted on 7 Aug 2013 10:03
Simon Roche
Mpumi, why don't you sue them? If you don't have tom to spare, then go to the legal aid board, or one of those lawyers who love to work on risk for a large chunk of the gain, and sue.Honestly mate, if you can prove ten or twelve points of (peculiar) similarity between their execution and your demonstrably-previously-written concept, you stand a fair chance of making a decent sum - something equivalent to what you would have got if you'd been paid 5 or 7.5 or 10% for your concept and the "supervision" thereof. You know what I mean...
Posted on 7 Aug 2013 10:11