Copying Ethics

Who Ya Gonna Copy?

A midieval copyist at work in his library
Midieval copyist from Luis Devlin

My confession: I like the ambiguity of the web page title, Copying Ethics.  Am I writing about the ethics of copying, being ethical when copying, or about copying ethical philosophy, how we copy ethical behavior?  I hope to include both.

To keep the basic ethical question simple and establish a foundation, I invite you to join me in dividing ethical positions into three categories.

  1. Selfless service—“I do as much as I can for others without looking for a return or reward.”
  2. Quid pro quo—“I give a service or product for a fair and equivalent compensation”
  3. Selfishness—“I take all I can from others and give little or nothing in return.”

Those few in the first category are highly regarded, and they are few indeed. The second category is where most of us hang out. The third group would not waste time looking at an article about ethics, so I’m not addressing them.

Good and Bad Copying

If all the copying you do remains unpublished, I don’t think it has an ethical dimension.

Should your copying be published, then one main rule applies. You need to cite the source of your quoted material. There are further rules about Fair Use, which can be stacked under the awning of fair play and common sense, for the most part.

If you make an indirect quote, you should refer the source, if you know it, but your citing need not be very detailed. In this case you may be also falling under the rule of “ideas cannot be copyrighted.” I’ll return to this further ahead.

Plagiarism implies deliberate deception, hard to prove, and, thus, a rare accusation. But we still gots our suspicions. Really, it’s very easy to avoid plagiarism.

How about items that, in common practice, are not usually cited: cliches, memes, lines of a song, or poem, well known and often quoted aphorisms? Who benefits, who is injured? In these instances the writer and the reader benefit. The originator of the now public domain trope must be consoled with their hidden fame. No injury, no foul.

“Success leaves footprints,” is a good example of an unattributed quote. I believe I’ve heard Tony Robbins say that. But, was he the first? And I’ve also heard others say this without attribution. Logically, we can be sure someone said this first. We’re just quoting. But, we don’t know who. We have to leave this as it is to be practical.

Copying as self-tutoring

You can walk in the footprints of a successful writer by copying their work, usually by hand. When I was studying copywriting with AWAI this process was part of the course. And, I had already caught the drift somewhere else, though I don’t remember where.

I saw a recent example of this learning technique in Ryan Levesque’s Ask. When I hit page 46, I leaned back and cried, “Whoa!” He revealed that he cultivated his copywriting skill by this very method, as well known, if little used, as it is. He copied Gary Halbert’s sales letters by hand.

If you have not heard of this self teaching technique until now, heed it well. Copying the writing you want to emulate by hand is the fastest and easiest way to gain competence at writing. It’s a stepping stone, not a destination. You will go on from that process.

It doesn’t have to be Gary Halbert. You could copy the sales letters of John Carlton, Dan Kennedy or Ben Settle. Or, any other master of copywriting you choose.

Nor are you limited to sales letter copywriting. If you are a blogging hopeful, copy some excellent blogger. Take a look at Darren Rouse, Danny Inny, or Copyblogger’s stable of writers.

This heuristic method works for art and music just as well. In these fields, just as in writing, you can imitate a major artist with enthusiastic attention to detail and arrive at the level of emulation, after sufficient time. And, then, you may go beyond to expand into your own personal style.

In music and graphic arts like drawing or painting, it is okay to quote a bit of melody, or part of a well known painting in your original piece. You can even do a whole work in a known style, as long as it is original. (You’re not going to pass that off as a Picasso, are you?)

Let’s also be clear about copying an idea or concept. Ideas cannot be copyrighted. If you restate an idea in your own words, especially developing the idea in a different way, you owe no citation. This is the way it is. If you wish to tip your hat to the source of the idea, that is good manners, but not really required. Yet, it puts you in the best ethical position.

Download a good Idea

Finally, speaking of ideas, let’s look at Ideas, or Forms, as Plato saw them. We cannot see these with our inner eye directly, as Socrates and Plato could, (most likely.) But, we can imagine them and accept their reality. These Forms and Ideas exist on the inner planes and supervene on our material reality, according to this Platonic philosophical view.

These Forms or Ideas have a relationship to creativity. The philosophy suggests that no one creates a new thing. We get to download a new idea. Then, we can work hard and bring it into reality, or just ignore it. I believe that many good, fresh ideas get downloaded, and then ignored. I’ve done my share of neglecting a fresh infusion of creativity that just pops into my head. So, I believe this may be common.

Sometimes a new idea is shepherded to a good pasture where it can thrive. Then everybody can benefit.

A different way of producing a new thing comes from the conscious combination of two disparate ideas. I’ve done this with fiddle tunes several times to good effect. Even here I cannot take full credit for creativity. First, Coleridge describes this as artificial creativity. It is not the natural creativity of inspiration. Second, where did the selection of the two things come from, anyway?

From our subconscious, you say? That may only be a transitional holding tank. We cannot directly access it anyway. Some teachers say we can stimulate it into giving us what we ask for. Maybe so, but that is still not direct access. It remains a mystery.

One last observation: Do I practice what I preach? I have done this in the past. I may do it again.

Do I walk the talk?

As I write this, writing my style is in transition.  Two courses from the Teaching Company are weighing in with influence. The first one is Writing Creative Nonfiction by Professor Tilar J. Mazzeo. I have not assimilated that one yet, and interrupted it in the middle to  go on to Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft by Professor Brooks Landon.

The second has begun to transmute my style. Professor Landon favors cumulative sentences, adding phrases to the root clause to build detail and forward momentum. Sentences become more dramatic when you do this well.

It goes against the frequent reiteration of “Keep it simple. Keep sentences short.” This has a subtext online of “You’ll make more money this way.”

So, if you’re not particularly into making a pile of money, you can let your writing move towards great sentences. Fair enough trade off for me.

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