Thursday, August 5, 2010

Is Rewriting a Copyright Violation?

My  last post covered rewriting and plagiarism, but I wanted to do a quick post on copyright infringement as regards to rewriting articles, too.  Why?  I recently had to file a DMCA notice with Google AdSense regarding a copyright infringement of an article I wrote.  My article wasn't copied word for word, however - it was rewritten.

That doesn't make it less of a copyright infringement, at least in the United States.  According to the U.S. Department of State's Focus on Intellectual Property Rights, republished in part in this glossary, there's a chance that the concept of "substantial similarity" would apply and protect my work from being rewritten.

What is substantial similarity?  The glossary defines it as how similar an original copyrighted work is to the work accused of copyright violation, and notes:
Exact word-for-word or line-for-line identity does not define the limits of copyright infringement. U.S. courts have chosen the flexible phrase "substantial similarity" to define that level of similarity that will, together with proof of validity and copying, constitute copyright infringement.
So if you rewrite a work or more than one works, even if you don't use the exact phrasing, even if you never copy a single sentence, it's not only considered plagiarism, but also may constitute copyright infringement.

And if that's not enough to convince you, according to,  you've got a violation of copyright if you reproduce, distribute, perform, publicly display, or make the original work "into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner." 

What is a derivative work? Back to the glossary:  It's a work that's "based on a preexisting work that is changed, condensed, recast, or embellished in some way."

As with everything legal, the words are open to interpretation.  But if you've had your original work copied, but not with the exact words, it still may be protected by copyright law.  And if you're thinking of rewriting an existing article or articles, the safest bet would be to not do that, but produce your own original creative work instead.

And one more note.  This doesn't mean you can't use other peoples' articles as sources when writing your own.  There's a subtle, but very real, difference between rewriting as copyright infringement and writing your own article using another article as a source.  I go into more detail about sourcing in Is Rewriting the Same as Plagiarism.


Copyright Nerd Writer Mom


Anonymous said...

Copyright infringrement guidelines can lead to funny situations. I mean if you just write a sentence like: "Cholesterol seems to be one of the most harmful health hazzards, according to many studies carried out in recent decades." I just made it up now. But I'm positive it closley resembles a lot of sentences in articles connected with the topic. So what? Shall I read all the articles in the world to make sure I don't violate copyright? Rubbish.

Anonymous said...

I think that the best course of action to do is still to get the information from a source and rewrite in a way that the message would be in line with what you wanted to share to the public. In that case you will be writing an article that does not come from the source but from you directly. But of course if you want to put substance to the truthfulness of what you are writing then it is advisable to link the source with the permission of the original author.