For writers, the path to ethical writing online is the same road a writer takes in the real world. Some things are constant, and in the writing world they haven’t changed much over the years. The biggest “thou shalt not” under writing ethics is don’t steal. Don’t steal another’s words; don’t steal another’s photographs. It’s pretty simple.
These two areas fall under copyright and plagiarism. Today’s technology makes it way too easy to copy and paste material and photographs. There’s a bit of a cultural shift that seems to be going on where the thought is that if it’s on the Internet it must be fair game. Not so.
Copyright issues with words and pictures
Copyright issues whether it’s with words or images challenge the writing ethics of today’s online writers.
Words – Watch where you grab them
Here’s the deal. Say you like what I’ve written and you like it so much you want to copy it and share it with your friends and readers. Well, that’s nice. If you only take a sentence or two that’s a form of flattery. If you start at the top, hold down the shift and run the cursor to the end, and then hit copy / paste, you’ve gone way past the goal post on that one. You need to back up.
So what do you do if you really, really want to share my article? Email me. Ask. Be specific on how you want to use the material and where you plan to showcase it. Be sure you indicate that you will definitely attribute the writing to me; that’s only fair since it is my writing.
Don’t rush to publish. Wait for my answer. There may be a good reason why I do not want to have that particular piece of writing make the rounds. On the other hand, I may be happy-happy that you want to use my article or a large portion of it. It is always better to check with the author before you copy and paste. Don’t set yourself up for a violation of copyright law. Above all, attribute, attribute, attribute, but don’t think attribution is the get-out-of-jail card and if you have that everything is okay. Attribution is, simply put, common courtesy.
Writing ethics – Images, photographs, pictures
Photographers have the same rights to their work as writers have to their words, and how you treat images falls under the same realm of writing ethics. While it’s trendy, to say the least, to copy photograph links and plaster them across the social media universe, in many cases these are clear violations of copyright law.
I know. I’ts no fun. It’s a real pain when you can’t grab that one image that so captures what you want to say, but you need to suck it up and realize that there are photoraphers and people out there who do not want you to grab their photo and do what you will with it.
Today there are many sources of good photographs that are free of the copyright restrictions. Change your habits and visit the legal resources where photographs are free because they are in the public domain or because they have been granted certain common copyright permissions. Read what they are then honor them. If you’re going to write online, do your due diligence. Above all, attribute and give the photographer his or her due. Again, remember that attribution alone isn’t an easy out.
Plagiarism – Who said what when
Yes, copying someone’s material word for word is definitely plagiarism. In common language, it’s stealing. It may sound harsh but it’s a fact and if you’re going to write at all, word-stealing is something that can really trip you up if you’re not careful.
What? You say you don’t really steal because you don’t copy/paste? You carefully rearrange the words and a few sentences so they’re different? Well, I’m afraid that falls under the mantle of plagiarism, too. Don’t depend on another’s work when you are creating your own material. Read and research, but then write from your personal understanding with your own words, metaphors, construction and structure. Say it your way.
Set your ethical bar high
These are two primary areas that need to be addressed in today’s online writing community but they are certainly not the only ones. How you treat your readers and interact with them demonstrates your level of ethical behavior. Are you up front and above board?
What about your behavior with publishers, agents, and other publishing entities? Are you professional and responsible? Do you follow their guidelines when receiving and handling ARCs? How you handle all these things speaks volumes to the level of ethical behavior you demonstrate as a writer. It starts with you. You set the bar.
Then relax. Does it mean you won’t slip up now and then, forget to attach a credit or attribute? If you’re human, you’re prone to mistakes. When you realize the omission, make it right. When someone reminds you of an error, correct it immediately. If you do that, your writing ethics will serve you well.
BTW – If you don’t, Google will
Just in case you still don’t see anything wrong with copying text and using it as your own, keep this in mind. Google isn’t keen on duplicate content. If you copy, you have duplicate content as there are now two versions on the web. That will hit your blog as a negative in Google’s eyes and impact your ranking–just a thought.
Feel free to chime in and leave a comment or suggestion. If you’ve stopped by as part of this ongoing discussion on writing ethics over at Armchair BEA, I hope you’re enjoying the virtual Book Expo this year.