Monday, August 20, 2007

Moral Dilemma

Hypothetically, if I had the opportunity to make money freelancing, would plagiarizing my own last-year's blog entires constitute some form of dishonesty? Your insights, please.

17 Comments:

Anonymous cliff said...

They are your words, so what's the problem?

5:51 PM  
Blogger David said...

I don't see why not, although I don't know what the journalistic standard for ethics would be. Besides, couldn't you re-work & polish the concepts until they were almost new anyway?

6:07 PM  
Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

I am tending to agree with David.

I guess the troublesome objection is that you'd be charging people money for content that was already available for free on the Internet?

("Free," that is, to people who pay for a computer and an Internet connection. But lots of people have already paid this expense for other reasons, so the marginal cost of using those resources to read your blog are infinitesmal ...)

On the other hand, a few weeks ago I was at Borders and picked up a little book of heterodoxical essays called What Is Your Dangerous Idea? Turns out this book is merely a collection of the writings posted at this site.

And I believe the guy who has the www.jumptheshark.com site also published some of its content in book form.

And these aren't even the site-owners' own words!

So I'm guessing it's not beyond the pale.

On the other hand, you might ask me, "When you found out you'd paid for a book of content that you could have read online for free, did you feel cheated?" And honestly I did, very slightly. On the other hand, I mostly bought it to read in the bathroom, and that's still an uncomfortable place to bring a laptop. I probably would have preferred for it so say somewhere on the cover "A collection of essays from www.edge.com" -- and I probably would have bought it anyway.

All this is a very long way of saying, I think it would probably be okay, but I'm not 100% sure.

7:04 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Part of it's the whole "available free online" bit, Stevo, and part is the idea that I should do something fresh and original if I'm being paid actual by-God money.

7:18 PM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

Hmm. If, instead of having written these pieces for an online blog, they had appeared in a daily, weekly, or monthly publication that was distributed for free, would you feel dishonest selling them as a collection or something - I mean, assuming you still retained the rights? I don't see any real ethical problem. Writers long before you have borrowed from their own works.*







*Just don't 'cha be a'borrowin' from mine though, or I'll have ta sue ya. :-)

7:22 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

No one has ever offered to pay me for my thoughts, so that probably means the following should be taken with a grain of salt. Ditto for anything that bears a resemblance to legal advice.

To my eyes, the practical downsides are a nagging conscience, and the reaction of the person with the checkbook if he or she later discovers the original blog entry.

Both problems could be avoided by confessing upfront that you plan to recycle content. You should, of course, dress this up by saying you plan to "expand on a germ of an idea [you] once had." You could even go so far as offering to show the benefactor the "rough draft" you've already prepared.

Of course, this approach might scare off your would-be patron. So it's really a balancing act. If he or she later found your blog entry, how would he or she react?

Would s/he accuse you of shirking your duty? That is, does s/he believe s/he is "entitled" to brand new content? (I can imagine a comment along the lines of, "If I knew you had already done the work, I wouldn't have offered to pay you as much.")

Could s/he fail to notice the post's date, and accuse you of undermining their advertisers, or otherwise betraying their "exclusive rights" to your writing? (The goal here isn't to be "in the right," but to gauge their "heat of the moment" reaction and how it might affect future business dealings with them.)

I think, at a minimum, you need to make it clear to them that you won't consider an offer to write for them to be a "work for hire," in the sense that the term is used in U.S. copyright law. (Short version: s/he becomes the legal owner of the content.)

You know what? I'm not thinking about this in terms of morals or ethics at all, am I? I suppose I'm just a more outcome-oriented person.

If it were me, and I reused content without telling the guy or gal with the money that I was doing so, my blog's archives would become the tell-tale heart. So: do whatever your conscience will bear.

And be careful of litigious folk.

8:37 PM  
Anonymous thoreau said...

If you flesh out and edit the posts, I don't see much of a problem. I know that Reason magazine has occasionally run articles that originated from blog posts (and of course all the examples escape my mind at the moment), revised in response to reader feedback. So you'd be charging for the final, polished version, the one based on considerable feedback, not the original off-the-top-of-your-head version.

8:56 PM  
Blogger Timothy said...

I'm gonna say, no. Do it. I say just take the old content, polish it up nice, and sell it. I am 100% certain other writers do this all the time.

9:00 PM  
Anonymous smartass sob said...

And be careful of litigious folk.

Litigious folk are just plain "teedjus". I was only joking about suing. ;-)

9:06 PM  
Blogger Windypundit said...

It's not a problem if they're not paying for all-original material.

Even if they want original material, it's not a problem if you just reuse the idea and not the actual words. Ask yourself, are you planning to reuse the blog entries in a way that, if someone else did it, they would be stealing from you?

If not, then there's no reason you can't do the same thing. If yes, then you've still got some thinking to do.

Of course, if you disclose what you're doing and they don't object, you'd be free and clear.

(I get the feeling that you wouldn't be asking us if it was this easy...and if you didn't already have a pretty good idea what the right answer is.)

11:21 PM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

Someone wants to pay for the byproducts of your thought processes. I see no problem with that.

1:38 AM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

Thanks for the input, guys! If I did this, it definitely would be far more than a cut-and-paste job; I'm thinking of using certain entries as preliminary ideas. Like the one I wrote (Zeus Just Told Me You're A Loser) about what public-school teaching would be like if people still worshiped the gods of Mount Olympus; it was a short piece tossed off the top of my head, but I'm thinking now, if I expanded and polished it a bit (okay, a lot), it could be a really, really funny column.

4:36 AM  
Blogger Dave-o-ramA said...

Practical example from a somewhat different community: I presented a paper at an SEG meeting, and they publsihed the expanded abstract (about 4 pages) as a part of that process. Then I revised, added, etc and submitted the full paper to their full journal as a full fledged paper.

This is EXACTLY the same concept. You've vetted the ideas somewhat by presenting them once. Now you're turning that into something that people will want to pay to read (or people will want to pay to advertise beside, or just pay to publish - anyway, somebody's payin').

Hell, Ender's Game started out as a short story called "Ender's Run". I say take their money, and take your small ideas and make them bigger.

7:29 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

Writers, journalists, reporters, all have reputations as being whores. So what's the problem?

Seriously, Jen. If you rewrite, polish, and expand to make something old like new, I don't see a problem. (Ayn Rand based Atlas Shrugged on a short story she wrote as a teenager called The Strike.)

11:12 AM  
Blogger Judy Aron said...

Think of it as a "spin off" - just like a TV show. LOL

Go for it.

5:37 AM  
Anonymous A Moose said...

And you can use the money to make a real archive site..and not clutter up the blog site...

6:24 AM  
Blogger Anne O'Neimaus said...

Lots of people make money selling repackaged collections of their (and other people's) original work. Most "anthologies" are just bound collections of stuff previously published in magazines, for example.

Art Buchwald, Erma Bombeck, Patrick F. McManus, Dave Berry, and lots of others have basically made careers of (re)publishing their already-published articles.

Let's face it: public domain text is packaged and sold for money all the time. When's the last time you saw a free Bible? How about a good, free dictionary?

You're not so much selling the textual content as you are selling the service of packaging it in a convieniently-accessed form, providing editorial services, and presumably adding contextual information and "related link" style footnotes.

Heck, doesn't your boss (an editor) pretty much make a living doing just that with other peoples' content?

10:56 AM  

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