Thursday, July 22, 2010

Is Rewriting the Same as Plagiarism? The Answer May Surprise You.

Many content writers wonder whether it's OK to rewrite articles by other people when they write for article sites like Suite101 or Demand Studios.  Is it allowed?  Is it plagiarism?  Is it worth it?

A common complaint about people who write for "content farms," as they're called - Demand Media being one of the largest - is that they simply rewrite articles that already exist elsewhere on the web.  Most websites make it explicit to writers that they are not to do this; they want original content.  Really original.  Not just rewritten.  Many do anyway, though, whether writing for their own web pages or for clients.  It's a temptation that's hard to resist.

Rewriting articles is, however, plagiarism.  Usually.  Sometimes it's even considered copyright violation.  Sometimes it's plagiarism even when you're rewriting your own work.  Yet this is not common knowledge amongst web content writers.  People are often confused about the difference between original writing and rewriting.  Before I talk about why rewriting an article actually is a form of plagiarism, I want to take a moment to question the value of rewriting at all.

Rewriting Offers Short Term Rewards - Very Short Term
The reason people rewrite articles is that they want to make money off of them.  They think that given the nature of the way search engines work, it's a harmless way to enter a niche without producing original creative work. The reasoning goes like this:

If an existing article is optimized for keyword ABC, then people searching for keyword DEF (which is really the same as ABC in meaning) will sadly not be able to find the ABC article.  So why not help readers and myself at the same time by rewriting the ABC article with the DEF keywords?  Readers will have access to this information, I will make money, and I'm not actually encroaching on the writer's intellectual property or copyright or profits, right?

Well...sort of.  The problem is that Google Search is getting better and better at being intelligent enough to know that keywords DEF are associated with ABC.  In some keyword combinations, it already does.  So  your efforts might be wasted; it's doubtful you'd be able to compete with the earlier article without offering something new of real value.

But even if you're wily and manage to rank well for the rewritten article, there's the little matter of copyright violation.  You've effectively stolen traffic from the author - not competed, not provided a better product, but infringed on copyright, at least in some jurisdictions.  Copyright infringement, which is mostly about money, is not the same as plagiarism, which is mostly about ethics, but they're closely related. 
Did you know that if you write an article about a book and you publish a summary of the key items of value of the book - the items that makes the book worth buying - and this results in significantly fewer sales for the book, then you leave yourself open to legal action? 
There is an interesting dilemma here for the writer who wants to rewrite.  You see a niche that needs filling.  Do you leave it to the original author to find keyword DEF and optimize their article for it?  No, of course not - nobody "owns" a niche.  But it really would help visitors to be able to find the information they seek.  So what do you do?

Not rewriting.   You write your own answer.  If you're not an expert, you research or think of something to say about it that would help the reader.  Or you consider the existing article, think about it critically, and write a new one that responds to it, but doesn't simply parrot it back in your own words.  You do the work. Some work.  Any work that involves thinking critically.  (Did I mention thinking critically?)

I'm not being a moralist here.  Or if I am, I'm being a practical one.  There are many cliches to apply here, but the simplest one is "What goes around, comes around."   If you write something original (and I believe you can - if you're capable of rewriting, and you're capable of thinking creatively enough to come up with the idea of rewriting, then you're fully capable of original work) then you'd want others not to rewrite it, yes?  A widespread respect for every single person's intellectual property is going to become extremely important in the near future.  We're entering a new era, the era of Internet City.

Intellectual property as we know it is not going to be the same in the coming decades.  What it means to "own" our work is going to change.  Because of the way digital technology has changed the nature of media - in particular, making mashups easy and distribution massive and lightning-fast - intellectual property laws are going to have to reflect a new attitude to creation that isn't so proprietary, but involves more sharing and collaboration, reflective of values of the younger generations that will "come into power."

But we're nowhere there yet, and to get there, there needs to be a common understanding of what it means to respect the creative work of others.

Rewriting is a Form of Plagiarism
Rewriting is not usually allowed, because it is a form of plagiarism.  Article sites that require original content do not want content that is rewritten, whether it's your own or someone else's. You can write a new article on the same topic, or you can write a better article inspired by the original, but both of those are quite different from rewriting.  Rewriting can cross over into plagiarism, even if not a single phrase is copied. And rewriting can be a copyright violation even if you don't copy a single word.

See this example of plagiarism in rewriting.

In the example I've linked to, note that paraphrasing is different and acceptable in some circumstances for short bits. But if you write an entire article based on an entire other article or a mishmash of other articles, paraphrasing the content, there's a very strong chance that it will be deemed plagiarism, no matter how well you paraphrase or credit the original author.  Or even if you are the original author.

I'd be willing to bet that most cases of plagiarism of ideas occur in writers who have no idea they're plagiarizing.  And I think one reason is that many are confused about the difference between using sources and copying ideas. Now, I'm not a copyright lawyer or a noted expert on intellectual property.  But here's the way I understand the concept of plagiarism:
  • You take information, facts, short quotes or ideas when you source. You always credit the source, except in the case of using facts that are common knowledge,
  • You take a relatively greater portion of word-for-word text or the expression of ideas when you plagiarize. The expression of ideas doesn't cover opinions, themselves, but rather syntheses and organization of information, among other things.  In copyright lingo, it's all about the concept of substantial similarity.
Plagiarism can also be confusing because you'd expect there to be some cold, hard objective criteria when determining whether something is plagiarism.  You might think to yourself, if I paraphrase it, is it plagiarism?  If I credit the author, is it plagiarism?  Are these things allowed or disallowed?  But it's not as simple as that.

There aren't any easy objective criteria.  Whether or not a piece of writing constitutes plagiarism is ultimately a subjective call by those deciding in disputes, whether it's the courts, a school, a print or an online publisher.  That's because language and the expression of ideas are subjective.  The concepts of  "adding value to work" and "stealing" depend on your reader's interpretation.

You might think: That's not fair!  It's just someone's opinion.  But actually, that's not a flaw in the concept of plagiarism; that's the nature of the concept itself. Without that element of subjectivity involved in the act of interpretion, the concept of plagiarism couldn't protect people's expression of ideas - and that's one of the things it's supposed to do.

When deciding whether or not your rewriting constitutes plagiarism, your best bet is to use your own subjective judgment.  If you think it might be plagiarism, then it probably would be determined as such by the author and any deciding body.  Writers are usually aware of the difference between putting creative effort into work and adding nothing of value to an existing work.

Why Bother?
Rewriting has very little value if you want to earn over the long-term.  The real potential for earning by revenue sharing comes in finding your own niche or niches and writing something that helps readers more than what's already there.   That is so powerful a thing that I wonder why people don't do it more often, but instead just rewrite existing articles or produce something that doesn't have lasting value.

Every one of us has something of lasting value to add to the web that Google would love to index and rank well, and so much of that can make money.  Maybe you don't know what it is.  Maybe you don't have confidence in your own knowledge, expertise and intuition. All I can say is - get creative.  Try.  Really hard.

While I don't think rewriting is a horrible, evil, morally reprehensible thing to do, I do think it's a bit silly to bother with, offering only a temporary benefit, and yes, it happens to be plagiarism. So there it is.  And there's no need to rewrite and plagiarize.  Really.  If you can rewrite, you can write, and if you can write, you can do it without stealing. 

Copyright Nerd Writer Mom


Anonymous said...

Hi: I would love to know how you can write an article on a subject you know nothing about. I am a freelance writer and I constant write about things I never use or have experience with. You have to read what others say, sometimes get authorative information, putting all in your own words. But it CANNOT be authentic since you are not writing from your own knowledge.

If you know a better way, I am open.

Nerd Writer Mom said...

Hi Anonymous,

That's a great question.

It's very possible to write an article on a topic that's new to you. That's what professional writers do all the time. They learn about things, they apply their creativity and/or critical thinking skills, then they write about them.

The difference between writing about something you don't know while not plagiarizing and simply rewriting is that in order not to plagiarize, you have to add value. The writer doesn't just parrot back the ideas or the creative arrangement of facts (that is, the way the original writer arranged the facts). Otherwise, what's the point?

In order to add value, you have to truly understand what you're writing about, on some level. What that means is that if you use authoritative resources as a reference, you actually should use them to learn about the subject and not just as a compendium of facts to copy. So you may be starting out new to the subject, but as you do your research, you learn about it - well enough to know the subject at least somewhat. At that point, it's a lot easier to turn out original work. (And this doesn't have to take a long time - it can take just a few minutes in some cases.)

How do you make sure it's original? Well, adding value can mean:

1) Making the facts more intelligible and better organized, thus making them more accessible to the reader.

2) Figuring out the reasoning behind the ideas and explaining that for the reader.

3) Lending your interpretation and opinion about the subject, giving the reader a new perspective.

4) Drawing new links between ideas - for example, instead of just parroting back Fact A and Fact B, showing their readers how Fact A and Fact B are in fact related.

5) Putting humor into the piece, or an interesting voice, making what were dry facts instead highly entertaining to read about.

6) Taking the facts and making them more useful by drawing conclusions from them, extending them to apply to new things, and helping readers make decisions about them.

7) Any other approach that involves using creativity and critical thinking.

I think a lot of writers do these things automatically. They just may not realize that's what they're doing. But after a while you get to know when you're actually flexing creative or critical muscle in your writing vs. just shuffling data. The effort feels different.

Does that help?

Anonymous said...


I rewrite articles for a website because I need money to pay my tuition fee. For the past few months I was in a moral dilemma but couldn't understand why. Now your blog has answered my question. I will not rewrite articles no matter what the stakes are.

Thank You. :)