Free Content -- or Forbidden Fruit?

Dear Cathy:

I just found an interesting article on someone else's website. What are the rules if I want to put it into my own ezine? Can I paraphrase and indicate where I found the info?

Or must I request permission to reprint, then list the item word for word? I am finding that most requests for permission go unanswered. Signed: Trying to Do the Right Thing

Dear Trying:

First I would ask, "Why do you want to use someone else's article?" If you're selling yourself, I recommend you use your own words and ideas. If your writing seems awkward, or your thoughts seem to stall between your computer and your brain, consider taking a course, joining a group and/or hiring a coach.

If your goal is to create an ezine with a huge circulation, and then sell ads for the ezine, you may be wise to use all sorts of content. You're not selling yourself -- you're selling a daily or weekly portion of ideas.

The ultimate example: Kevin Eikenberry's Powerquotes. Kevin has built a huge following by sending around quotes -- not his own original ideas. He's also a really nice guy who answers his email.

Now suppose you see a terrific article on one of my websites (And why wouldn't you? They grow like wildflowers.) Like most website authors, I state clearly that anyone may reprint my articles if they make no changes and use my resource box. Go for it!

But suppose you want to write your own article about reprint permissions. You want to mention that I said, "Better to write your own article if you're selling yourself." You don't want to use the whole article -- just this one idea.

No problem! Just mention that Cathy Goodwin presented this idea and supply my website address. You're free to add more ideas, disagree or send people to my site to read more. Just give me credit.

What you're doing now is "citing" a source, whether it's a website article or a book from the library. You must take care to reproduce ideas accurately and in context.

For example, if I say, "Here's what NOT to do: Help yourself to anything on the web," don't you dare say, "Cathy Goodwin invites us to help ourselves to anything on the web." That can get you in real trouble, as well as make you look very, very stupid.

Now let's imagine you like this entire article (I live for this) and you want to reproduce the ideas. However, you want to paraphrase and just say, "Based on an article by Cathy Goodwin."

Frankly, I can't see why you would want to paraphrase more than a single idea from an article. If you really like my articles, add a link to my site (and ask me to reciprocate -- I usually say yes).

Now let's suppose you come across a website with a terrific article. You want to reprint that article, but the author ignores your request for reprint permission. I recommend that you abandon this article and move on to a new one, preferably your own.

Why publicize an author who can't be bothered to respond? How do you know the article you want was legally acquired? Perhaps the author paid a ghostwriter and now feels embarrassed to take the credit.

There are dozens of databases that offer free content. I send my own articles to several. Simply type "free content" into a search engine and you'll be overwhelmed. Some of these collections insist that authors specify their own reprint guidelines. Others ask us to agree to their guidelines whenever we submit an article.

Another tip: If you like articles by a particular author, type that author's name into a search engine. Chances are you'll turn up a website offering free content -- and the editor will have established permissions for everyone.

When in doubt, I'd prefer to err on the side of caution. An author who feels her work has been stolen will resemble an angry bee, determined to sting you in a most awkward portion of your anatomy. You won't even get a pot of honey -- just an article you didn't need anyway.

About The Author

Cathy Goodwin, Ph.D., is an author, speaker and career/business consultant, helping midlife professionals take their First step to a Second Career.

"Ten secrets of mastering a major life change"

Contact: 505-534-4294

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