Theft, Rebranded

Whew! Yesterday was quite a discussion day, wasn’t it? I want to thank everyone for chiming in, pro and con, over the content mill debate. I want to thank Deb Ng once again for voicing her side of things. Much appreciated, Deb.

In Tuesday’s post, some disturbing commentary came up and I’m loathe to let it pass without some serious discussion. One of the posters brought up this hypothetical idea of finding corporate clients, working for them, and then reselling that content to content mills. He mentioned press releases and articles as potential resell opportunities. It doesn’t matter – it’s wrong on both counts.

Here’s the thing – when you write for a client, you write their copy in exchange for a fee. When you hand it over, it’s theirs. Not yours. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it – that copy is not yours. I don’t care how entrepreneurial you are or how resourceful you think it is; you cannot resell a product that isn’t yours to begin with. Just because you generated it doesn’t mean you own it. You don’t. Have I mentioned yet that you can’t sell it because it’s not yours?

I’m stressing this because to do otherwise is unethical at best. Legally, you’re looking at breach of contract, copyright infringement, theft of intellectual property, theft of trade secrets, damage to brand and reputation, damage to the ability to compete, etc. And hell yes, you’re going to be fired for it, as well you should be, in my opinion.

Circulating someone else’s press release without their permission? That’s just as bad. While it may seem logical that companies want all the added attention, it’s not your choice to decide where that release is going to be seen. It’s the company’s choice. Imagine this – you hire someone to write a press release for your own company. You select the news organizations where you’re going to send the release. Maybe it’s because your product is new on the market and you want to get it into New York Times et al before your competition can trump you.

But your Google Alert shows your press release out there on a content mill site. What? How can that be? Because your writer took it upon himself to circulate your release on the Internet. Worse, he got money for it, money above what you’d paid him so that you retained all rights to your release. So now, are you happy for the “added exposure” or are you pissed because someone’s making money off your proprietary information and tipping off your competitors, thus damaging your competitive edge and weakening your brand? Suppose you worked for Apple and it’s their release on their newest product? Think you’re going to be seen as having tons of initiative? I think it’s more likely you’ll be seen as a thief.

If this is a gray area for you still, don’t take on any clients. Please. Until you understand that the money you collect for those projects transfers the project ownership to the client, you’re opening yourself up to all sorts of legal action, and you’re damaging your client’s business.

Have any of you seen this in practice?

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  • Wendy October 22, 2009 at 11:34 am

    Wow, I didn't realize that was what they were talking about. I took it a little differently, because they referred to getting permission. Not that it makes it any better, because I was thinking not many places would give permission.

    I agree. Once a client contacts me and we finalize details over the project he/she has come up with; then I treat it as if they own it from the beginning. When it's all said and done and the project is paid for, then it is legally theirs.

    In some cases, they pay a percentage up front, so technically it would be theirs to begin with. Unless, of course, they don't pay the rest.

    The legal aspects of writing can be overwhelming, so at least once a year, I take time to brush up on my skills and study up on the legalese of writing. The last thing I want to do is get caught on a minor detail that I overlooked before.

  • my poem October 22, 2009 at 1:03 pm

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  • Devon Ellington October 22, 2009 at 1:09 pm

    Most contracts are pretty clear on this matter, even if the final copyright doesn't revert from writer to client until the final payment has cleared.

    It's hard to imagine any professional could consider such behavior a viable option, but I guess I shouldn't be surprised.

    Hopefully, those who behave that way get caught and pay the consequences sooner rather than later.

    I'm all for using one set of research to create different articles for different markets,but that's a whole different thing than taking a work for hire piece, bought and paid for by a client, and re-selling it with a few minor tweaks.

  • Darrell October 22, 2009 at 4:14 pm

    I think you deliberately misrepresent what I wrote, but I understand that my meaning may have been lost as a result of the length of my posting, so let me try once more. To be clear, I will add that I am not advocating this, but pointing out that it is a "business model" that content mills are bound to encourage by virtue of the pay-per-click business model and lack of true editorial oversight.

    A corporate client pays you to write material for content mills and the content mills let you do it. The corporate client likes it because it gets their message out. The content mills like it because they get easy content.

    I fail to see how that is theft, copyright infringement or illegal in any way.

  • Paula October 22, 2009 at 4:24 pm

    Darrell's clarification is very similar to some job listings I've seen lately. I keep spotting ads from companies seeking people to blog and tweet about their products or services. It's the new form of cheap, guerrilla-style advertising.

    Littering communities with graffiti and random posters is so last century.

    The thing I hate is these paid-for mentions appear to be unbiased opinions.

  • Eileen October 22, 2009 at 5:28 pm

    The thing I hate is these paid-for mentions appear to be unbiased opinions.
    That will be a thing of the past, if the FTC has its way. They issued new guidelines a couple weeks ago requiring disclosure of arrangements such as these. How it will be enforced is anyone's guess, but it is now required.

  • Lori October 22, 2009 at 7:07 pm

    Darrell, if I misrepresented your post, it was unintentional. Do me a favor – don't use words like "deliberately" and then back off the attack. I stated clearly this was a hypothetical idea. I didn't name you directly. I don't deliberately misrepresent anyone, including myself.

    The idea, as you've rephrased, is perfectly fine. I agree. I'm sorry if I didn't understand your first post.

    Eileen, exactly. The FCC has implemented the rules that will stop advertorials from being framed as news items. For that, I'm grateful (from a consumer standpoint). I don't see anything wrong with full disclosure. Some writers have voiced opposition ot that (not here that I've seen).

  • Lori October 22, 2009 at 7:36 pm

    Paula, I think it's a good idea. What I object to is if it's done without the company's knowledge. Darrell has rephrased his initial comments, which makes this post somewhat moot. 🙂

    However, the lesson is still there. There are writers in this world who believe this to be perfectly normal. I worked with one once. Imagine having to inform a supervisor that no, you can't really take a freelancer's idea and assign it to a staffer.

    Devon, I agree. What concerns me is when writers don't understand exactly what that means. Let's face it – business details are often overlooked by newcomers.

    Wendy, you're smart. We should all study copyright laws more closely, mainly those that apply to writers.

  • Devon Ellington October 23, 2009 at 11:31 am

    Lori, Part of one's job as a professional is to thoroughly read and understand any signed contract. "Being new" isn't an excuse. Unless you want to pay a lawyer to look over every agreement, learn how to read and interpret. Seasoned writers are extraordinarily generous when it comes to helping newcomers learn the ropes — provided the newcomer puts in a little effort, too.

  • Lori October 23, 2009 at 12:00 pm

    Precisely my point, Devon. Newcomers make some pretty serious mistakes because of those contract terms sometimes. I hope this serves as a caution – read the thing and get help understanding it.