Idea Thievery

What’s on the iPod: Ghosts That We Knew by Mumford & Sons (clickable link!)

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Note: This post was inspired by and dedicated to Keyboard Hussy.

Friday already? Time flies when you flat-out busy. I finished another project this week and made real progress on a project with a quick turnaround.

The other day I was talking to myself, and the topic of idea thievery came up. I say I was talking to myself because, well, I was. It’s a solitary career, you see. Plus when you hear what I was saying to myself (and arguing back and forth with oneself is an odd contradiction, not to mention a waste of time and scary for those who happen to walk in unexpectedly), you’ll understand the point of this post. Or not. I’ve convinced myself during my self-involved conversation that this is a good topic. You be the judge.

So, idea thievery. Why it came up between I and me was that sometimes I draw inspiration for new posts from my old posts. If I thought it was a good-enough idea then, would I still feel the same way now? And if so, why not expand on that thought? But here’s where it becomes thievery — if I don’t link back to or give credit to myself for the prior post, that’s bad. (I do have a point, so hang in there with me.)

But isn’t that okay? I mean, I see writers doing this to other writers all the time. So if they can swipe ideas or expand on someone else’s idea without attribution, I can swipe my own ideas in the same way. Right?

Well, sort of.

Let’s set the record straight — you can’t steal from yourself. You can’t claim you were unaware that your material was being used by, well, you. That is, unless you have multiple personalities and even then I don’t see that standing up in court. Would you have to hire two lawyers? Can you testify against yourself?

So if you “refresh” your own content or continue a prior conversation you started and you don’t give attribution, you’re not a thief. But seriously, why wouldn’t you give yourself credit? Moreover, your readers may want to know about the previous content so they can read it, too. The point is it’s not plagiarism nor is it really unethical to say “Hey, I had a great idea! I’m stealing that!”

So I know what you’re thinking — that same logic should apply to writers swiping other writers’ ideas or conversations, right?

Wrong. Dead wrong. 

If I write what I think is the bee’s knees of blog posts, and I work hard at it, you may want to continue the conversation because it may actually be a topic that lends itself to more conversation and examination. However, if you do so without one link back to the place where you got the idea, come on. What the heck are you thinking? Do you really think it’s okay to take my topic of Pig Farming for Fun and Profit and turn it into your discussion on why pigs are good farmers or how rich pigs get to be so rich? There’s only one way that would be okay —

If you give proper attribution.

I’ve done it. I’ve read a blog post that’s made me think “Hey, I’d love to talk about that, too.” And I do. But I don’t do it without linking to the original post or mentioning where I’d read it first. Why? Because it’s the decent thing to do and it takes less than five seconds of my time to do the decent thing. In fact, see my attribution at the start of this post — the idea was not originally mine. And Keyboard Hussy gets — and deserves — the credit. The blame for how I took that idea and ran with it? All mine.

I say this on the heels of seeing three different topics written by three different bloggers repeated on other blogs without a link back or “I saw something on this person’s blog.” And no, I don’t believe that it’s always coincidence. It’s not. Sometimes it’s idea theft. If you read a lot of blogs regularly, you get to know whose ideas are being “repurposed” and who those “repurposers” are. And no, it’s not okay to recycle someone else’s work.

So if you’re a serial idea thief, stop it. You’re annoying the hell out of your peers. Plus you’re coming across as someone who is lacking possession of any original thought.

Have you seen similar ideas showing up within days or weeks of a post you remember? When you do, do you notify the blogger in question or the original blogger? 

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  • Devon Ellington March 29, 2013 at 12:08 pm

    I've had that problem with "students" signing up for a class, then taking the class material, quitting the class, and charging money to teach it on their own sites, even though it clearly states that the material is my intellectual property and the materials are not to be re-distributed.

  • Cathy Miller March 29, 2013 at 12:54 pm

    LOL, Lori. 😀 However, as I suffer from occasional bouts of boomer brain, I am sure I steal from myself and don't remember the original post. 😉

    That being said, I think you're spot on. I do believe there are times when it is just coincidence, but when you see the same idea over and over from a relatively small network, it gives me pause – at a minimum.

    Heck, I've even said, I can't remember where I read this, but I would give credit if I could remember when boomer brain robs me of the memory of where I read something.

    Like you said, it's the decent thing to do.

  • Lori March 29, 2013 at 1:58 pm

    Devon, we've had that in the 5 Buck Forum too, I'm sure of it. You get someone who signs up for a month, then disappears without a single post or even mentioning who they are (we know because their info is in PayPal). We had one or two who signed up for a DAY and canceled. I can't believe it's all because it wasn't what they expected…

    Cathy, there was a coincidence last week. Anne and I wrote about the EXACT SAME THING –she on her blog, me on the forum blog. Same artwork, even. In that case, it was pure coincidence. I saw the artwork in our shared folder and thought "Hey, that would work!" Should have read her blog first. 🙂

    I get that sometimes we forget. I've done it, but I try to mention it ("I read somewhere this week, can't remember where….")

  • Jake P. March 29, 2013 at 2:49 pm

    It's particularly short-sighted when you consider the benefits of linking out and linking in. (Then again, if you're skanking around and stealing, you're probably not interested in being part of your peer community.) And from an SEO perspective, you benefit from back-linking to your own popular posts, so there's that, too.

    A lot of my blog posts are riffs on, expansions of, or contrarian views to things I've read elsewhere. To me, part of the value of blogging is to point people to the source material in the hopes that they'll enjoy and learn from it as much as I did.

  • Lori March 29, 2013 at 6:34 pm

    Jake, there's always that. 🙂 And you're right — it is short-sighted. There are a few bloggers I've known over the years who will not link to anyone. How exactly is that a benefit, I wonder? I guess those intent on being the EXPERT on it all don't want to give credit. Hey, even experts don't know everything! I tend to trust less people who won't acknowledge their own limitations. Ah, but here I go, ranting…

    You've always been great at linking back, as have most people who read here. That builds a more sustainable community — sharing.

  • Paula April 1, 2013 at 6:53 pm

    I'm glad to know I'm not the only one talking to myself! (Sometimes I answer in my dog's voice, leading her to lear at me with an express like, "I would never say something that stupid!") A couple years ago I saw SNL head writer Seth Meyers on a talk show, and he said he's always walking down the street talking to himself…he attributed it to being something a lot of writers do to process their thoughts.

    I know of one blogger who has to be an idea thief, because coincidental duplication of other bloggers' posts cannot happen that frequently. Ya know? Plus, that particular blogger has also been known to troll the blogs that originated the ideas, saying, "Wow! What a coincidence! I just covered this on my blog, too!" and including a link to that post. That's temerity.

  • Lori April 2, 2013 at 12:52 pm

    Paula, at least your dog listens. This goldfish is totally stoic.

    I've seen similar things happen, too. I know there's the mindset that one has to be THE authority on something, but admitting the idea wasn't yours originally isn't a stain on your reputation — rather the opposite, I think. It shows you have a strong moral character, and you're just a damn decent person for showing some humility.