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Plagiarism … or Inspiration?

This guest post is by Dawn Walnoha of Brandsplat.

In all writing, blogging being no exception, there is a fine line between borrowing ideas and plagiarizing content. Since the issue is not clearly defined the same way everywhere, it is open to interpretation. And that means the line is somewhere in a gray area between the black and white of honest content and dishonest theft.

One area that has been a perennial gray zone is that of borrowing another writer’s structure or approach to their writing style, while not borrowing their content. This is absolutely, in no way shape or form, plagiarizing. But because of the nature of ideas and how they originate and propagate through society as memes, there are people who take this kind of structural borrowing as a theft of ideas.

So how does one evaluate the matter to be sure they’re simply using a reasonable approach, rather than stealing from another writer?

Comparing content

Let’s take a look at two very popular television series, two of my personal favorites in fact: ABC’s Castle and Fox’s Bones.

Castle, which first aired as a mid-season replacement in 2009, features a male and female partnership duo heading up an ensemble style cast of quirky police detectives. Rick Castle, an author who is tagging along on police investigations in order to do research for his books, often clashes with the experienced police detective Kate Beckett. Castle lacks any kind of police training and can’t protect himself like a cop could, but their personality clashes hide a growing and intensifying attraction to one another.

Compare that to Bones, which first aired in 2005. Temperence Brennan and Agent Seeley Booth head up an ensemble cast of quirky characters. Brennan (who is an author) is working with the experienced FBI field agent Booth.  Booth often clashes with her over decorum in the field because she wants to get close to the action but lacks the training of an experienced officer. However, their clashes hide a growing and intensifying… you can see where I’m going with this, I’m sure.

On the surface, these two shows look very much alike. Just looking at the facts as presented, you would probably excuse someone for making the initial assumption that Castle ripped Bones off. But looking a bit more in depth, you’ll see that it is not the case.

Bones is a show focused on forensic anthropology based out of a lab in the “Jeffersonian” institute (a Smithsonian analog) working with the FBI on high profile cases. It showcases the very real concerns of the interactions between specialists who are civilians and actual agents invested with police powers.

Castle, on the other hand, shows a rich playboy author who does a “ride along” with Detective Beckett and becomes fascinated with her.  He decides to base a novel character on her, and uses his pull with the mayor to get assigned to her cases. This scenario is well into the realm of fanciful whimsy, rather than the situation in Bones, which at least attempts to illustrate the actual way two different agencies might interact.

Further, before Bones could make a claim against Castle, one has to remember that Bones is simply a retread of the tried and true “buddy cop” formula itself, which dates back much further than either series.

Both shows use a very similar format, but Castle is not a copy of Bones. They simply start from a similar premise, and follow the creators’ logic and own unique creative processes from there.

Borrowing format

So it is with blogging. Perhaps one day you come across a format from a favorite blogger that you can see will work for you. Maybe the way they present their research and conclusions appeals to you in an organizational sense, and you borrow the format. This does not mean you’re borrowing the ideas, nor are you stealing actual content. Thus, it should not be considered plagiarism or intellectual property infringement.

Maybe it even goes further than that. A blogger could write about a specific topic you find interesting, and you decide to use the topic as a starting point. So long as you do your own research and do not simply take their article and rewrite it, again you are not plagiarizing.

Ideas are very fluid concepts. It is very difficult to demonstrate exactly where any one meme began in most cases. You should not be afraid of reading your favorite blogs and drawing ideas on what to write about from them. On their road to success, Bones and Castle weren’t afraid to revisit the buddy cop series idea, borrowing liberally from CSI and, yes, each other along the way. (The creators of Castle have even acknowledged that the relationship between Beckett and Castle has similarities to the one between Booth and Brennan.)

Don’t be afraid to look for ideas anywhere, so long as you are honestly willing and able to do the work yourself to flesh those ideas out.

Dawn Walnoha is the VP of Production at Brandsplat.  Brandsplat creates blogs, articles and social media in the voice of our client’s brand. Click here for the Brandsplat Report or visit our blog at www.ibrandcasting.com.

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Comments

  1. Sylvia says:

    Thanks for the pointing out the fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. What it comes down to is taking the time to make it your own. There are so many view points and information via the internet. It is unfortunate some do not wan to invest the time to create their own voice…it really is the key to having engaging content so readers want to come back.
    Great post!
    :)Sylvia

  2. Jen says:

    Great post and an important topic! I can see where some writers teeter between linking back to the original source and trying to establish their own credibility. I tend to lean toward referring. Having other links in your blog post is good for SEO, right? Well selected references also can establish credibility as someone who’s in the know regarding top notch resources.

  3. Chihuahua0 says:

    So the differences matter more than the similarities?

  4. I guess I can’t quite consider my self a “newbie” any longer, as I have been blogging for almost a year. My blog is a place to capture stories from my own life, and I mostly take my inspiration from my life with whatever is going on at the moment. That being said, there are times that a topic from someone else’s blog strikes a chord with me, and I can relate it to a part of my life. I have often wondered whether using a topic (even if the story is entirely different) would be crossing a line—which I now believe is not the case thanks to this well-written post. Thank you!

  5. Interesting question Dawn. Where does the line exist? Speaking your own true, authentic voice makes the discussion moot, but not too many people do this. Thanks for sharing with us.

  6. Jurwe says:

    Depending on jurisdiction. In great many jurisdisctions it would be really difficult to sue anybody for any kind of stylistical IP infringement. In many countries only styles that are registered are guaranteed any kind of protection.

  7. Glenda Young says:

    It’s unpleasant but it happens and has happened a lot in the past to our blog where original content ends up being mashed up and presented on another blog. It hurts, that’s all I can say and after time you have to develop a thick skin and know in your heart that the site that provides the original content in the first place is the winner, always will be, always has been. Copy Blogs are not fun and are for those who can’t write and with no ideas of their own.

    • Glenda, I understand that. I ran across an post that was for all intents and purposes was mine. The headline was exactly the same and so was the structure. The guy, who says he’s a lawyer according to his bio, did take the time to rewrite the words, but everything else was identical. I’m still angry, but I guess there’s not much you can do in a case like that. As you said, just gotta grow a thick skin and remember that yours was the original.

      Thanks, Dawn, for an insightful post.

  8. Mas Jamal says:

    I think is fine. No different about plagiarism or inspiration.

  9. There is no wrong in borrowing idea from another blogger’s post as long as you are mixing your own unique idea with it.
    Borrowing full post format is not legit and not professional.

    thanks for writing this diplomatic blog post friend :)

  10. Very true. you got it right.ideas arw fluid and can come and go anytime. you need to make sure that when they comes to you, you should make the most of it

  11. If you consider the trends in art then you’ll find that there is nothing original. The archetypes have been established a long time ago and what we’re doing now is just building upon them. This is valid for everything, be it art, storytelling or writing.

    “Good artists copy, great artists steal!”

  12. Wade says:

    Originality in an idea from someone else is key to demonstrating between plagiarism and other forms. I try to keep my blogs away from any ideas that I see elsewhere. Content is the hardest thing. If you are giving true, helpful, original content, then you are staying away from the topic in question.

  13. Hando says:

    Detecting plagiarism can be a real problem, especially for sites that relay on user generated content, it can also apply for blogs that accept guest posts. Using plagiarism detection software can help you to find copied content but if the content is well rewritten then there is no way to identify it.

  14. Great post, Dawn
    I’m a Bones fan, but haven’t watched Castle. I’ll check it out.

    I’m often inspired by the posts and comments of others. I love sharing content and sometimes I love giving my take on a topic or what I learned about a topic. I find that when there is a huge topic in the blogging world, we can find loads of posts about it and I wonder if I should even bother adding my voice to the mix. Sometimes the answer is yes, other times I’ll write a list post sharing the view points that I found most interesting with my readers.

    It all makes it a lot of fun.

    Kimberly

  15. rohit says:

    i am in a niche segment of trading strategies and technical analysis.
    its a research oriented work. when to buy or sell kind of things.
    how to secure my original content. i have not found a single app which can do this?
    can you help me.

  16. I think is inspiration…

  17. Fine lines indeed. We can be inspired by but not directly copy others work. The music industry has done it for years.

  18. Thanks for the pointing out the fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. What it comes down to is taking the time to make it your own. There are so many view points and information via the internet. It is unfortunate some do not wan to invest the time to create their own voice…it really is the key to having engaging content so readers want to come back.
    Great post!