I Mean, Who Does That? (Don’t Be An Intellectual Property Thief)


Did you know that a person’s work is under copyright “the moment it is created and fixed in a tangible form”?* That means that an author’s manuscript is copyright before it is published. So is a musical composition. A poem. A limerick or a haiku. A painting or a drawing or a cartoon. A sculpture, a photograph, a Facebook status, a tweet.

Did you also know that this means if you copy, reproduce, or claim someone else’s work as your own, you are infringing on their intellectual property rights? You might know this is true of a motion picture, or the script for a play or television show or a musical. You might know this is true of a record album or a song or music video. For a short story or a newspaper article or a book. But it is every bit as true for a blog entry, an Instagram post, a Facebook status, or a tweet.

Maybe you’ve never really thought about it before. Maybe because the internet is so very open and public you never realized that it’s not okay to copy someone else’s status and share it as your own. That content created on platforms like Facebook and Twitter are not in the public domain, but the property of its creator. Maybe you didn’t stop to think that using someone else’s words requires permission from the creator, and attribution of your source. But it does.

Theft of intellectual property happens all the time. Sometimes it’s a victimless crime, resulting in little more than annoyance or perhaps a touch of anger on the part of the person whose words, art, music, or other work has been co-opted or stolen. But not always.

Would you be okay with a colleague stealing your idea or taking credit for your work? Would you shrug and look the other way if another student copied your child’s book report or science fair project or math homework? Would you be angry if the majority of people on a team project took credit for one person’s work? No, no, and yes. Because, duh.

If this seems petty, I’m not sorry. Because stealing is stealing whether it’s armed robbery or pocketing a candy bar or cutting and pasting someone’s Facebook post to share it as your own. Don’t say it’s not a big deal because it shouldn’t matter whether someone dashed off a thought in twenty seconds or spent nights tossing and turning over the perfect status update or tweet. Stealing is wrong. Can you be arrested or sued for stealing someone’s work? Yes. Does it always happen? Of course not. But that doesn’t make it okay.

I find this particularly vexing because I am a writer and a published author. Imagine that you have X number of Facebook friends and I have X number of Facebook friends, and never the twain shall meet. Right? But what if we have X number of friends in common, mutual friends, on Facebook? I post a status, you steal it, and our mutuals see your status first. Then, they see my status. Whose status do you imagine they will think was stolen, and whose will they think is the original? How many of them are going to toggle between the two accounts to check time and date stamps?

Writers of all stripes, published, amateur, and everything in between, absolutely DO NOT want mutual friends—or anyone else—thinking they have stolen another person’s words, however few words, however inconsequential those words may seem. It’s a matter of being seen as professional, as having integrity, of being trustworthy, of being a person who does one’s own work and keeps one’s eyes on one’s own paper. I learned this in first grade. Maybe not everyone did.

If you see something that’s clever, that’s poignant, that’s funny, that speaks to you, that you want to share, stop. Contact the person who created that content. Ask permission. Then, give credit where credit is due. Share directly from the creator’s page to be absolutely sure the right person gets the credit for the photo, the drawing, the pithy saying, the joke, the whatever. And if the creator’s content is not available for public sharing, then be sure you give proper attribution before cutting and pasting to your own page. But never should you ever copy something and present it as your own. That’s dishonest. It’s childish. And yes, it’s stealing.

So, if you’ve thought about doing this, don’t. If you’ve done it, stop it. And if you’ve never done it or considered doing it, I thank you.


*U.S. Copyright Office, Copyright.gov

(See how easy it is to give attribution to one’s source?)