Copywriters and plagiarism: When it’s ok to ‘steal smart’

People like you make it harder for people like me!, bellowed the so-called graphic designer. 

He worked for Office Depot in the printing department and I had committed the unpardonable sin of asking that some of my larger portfolio pieces be copied.

These Direct Mail Packages and Print Ads were mighty fine looking with high branding and design. Some were from big names like Disney and Toyota.

I explained that I wanted to create some “leave behinds” for potential new clients.

He thought I was passing off someone else’s work as my own. (Kinda lets you know why he was working at Office Depot, doesn’t it?)

I showed him there were no copyright notices on any of my samples.

But he clung to his ignorance and I left empty-handed — while he (loudly) called me a “plagiarist” on my way out.

Truth is, I wrote every single word on the pages of those work samples, although I might have “stolen smart” in a few places.

Here’s what you need to know about this rarely discussed copywriting tactic.

Copywriters and plagiarism: When it’s ok to ‘steal smart’

In marketing, everybody watches everybody else. That’s why, in the early days of the Internet, the world’s largest brands had websites that all looked like corporate brochures.

They didn’t know what to do with a web page so they copied from their competitors and put the bios of their employees there…until poaching went rampant.

I wouldn’t call this stealing smart, but more like the blind leading the blind. It was funny to watch the corporate behemoths fumble around.

Closer to home, copywriters do the same thing. We scan the Internet for relevant data. We read books. And we collect advertising samples.

“Stealing smart” is a phrase we’ve had in the marketing world for at least three decades that gives copywriters (unofficial) permission to plagiarize.

Now let me make it crystal clear that I’m not advocating plagiarism… at least not at the”get sued” level.

But when we see successful campaigns or successful copy, it’s our job to figure out how to leverage this new knowledge into our clients’ work. 

For instance, many if not most copywriters are aware of the wildly successful historical headline for Bottom Line Personals, “What Never to Eat on an Airplane.”

To use this headline in its entirety would be blatant plagiarism (and appalling laziness). But using the idea or concept and most of the words, would not.

Let’s say your client sells a health and wellness newsletter. A headline you might write for an article could be, “What Never to Eat in a Hospital Bed.”

This is “stealing smart.” You can also steal smart other aspects of a campaign, such as formats, offers, and concepts. 

All marketing campaigns die out and when they do, there’s no reason not to adopt winning copy for your own use. Just be aware that stealing ongoing marketing work (like a company’s branding tagline), is dangerous and could constitute copyright infringement.

Headline generators help you steal smart

These days there are also more than a few free “headline generators” you can use to stimulate your thinking.

Here, you’re not really stealing anything. You’re simply plugging data into a field and the software spits out some historically successful direct response headlines or titles.

For instance, when I put in the phrase “life insurance,” the headline generator gave me nine headline ideas, some of them worth playing with. 

This is the one I would work with:

“Why Life Insurance Is No Friend To Small Business”

It’s nearly impossible to plagiarize big chunks of copy

In printed marketing materials you’ll notice that a copyright notice is often missing. That’s because no two businesses are exactly alike. (Online is different for copyright notices because it’s so easy to copy and paste entire blocks of copy.)

Even with commodities or “cookie cutter businesses,” a good marketer will seek out a USP (Unique Selling Proposition) for their business, and that alone would force even the laziest copywriter to do proper work.

Off the top of my head, here are some of the variables that force unique copywriting:

• Target market

• Offer

• Product

• Selling emotions

• Proof elements

• Goals

• Budget

• Marketing mix

• SEO

• Timing

• Branding elements

And the list goes on.

A painful event

For about 10 years I kept a folder of all of my concepts that didn’t make the cut at the agency I worked for. I thought that one day I would get a job where I could use one of the concepts and get paid for work that was already done.

But that day never came. Eventually I realized that I would never be able to apply a concept for one company to the needs of another. And into the trash can went my thick stockpile of concepts, along with a heavy dose of regret.

It’s tough to really truly plagiarize in direct response copywriting, but it’s often easy to adapt super short copy like headlines (hence the headline generators).

It’s also easy to copy unusual themes, like using black envelopes for a direct mail campaign. (Yes, a competitor copied my idea!) 

Successful copywriters use their creativity to break new ground for their clients and themselves. And if stealing smart will help… well, now you know where to draw the line.

2017 © Chris Marlow, All Rights Reserved

P.S. — For just $35 per month, you can access modern swipe files and some classics in my membership for copywriters, the S.S Treasure Hunt.

Also, I’ll bet you have something to share about plagiarism or stealing smart. Please share in the comments section below!

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About Chris Marlow

The original copywriter's coach, Chris Marlow has worked with copywriters since 2003. Her acclaimed Marlow Marketing Method™ Client Acquisition Course has produced hundreds of successful copywriters. Chris' S.S. Treasure Hunt membership site not only houses this course but four more on the subjects of Copywriting, Advanced Copywriting, Productivity, and Closing Clients. The S.S. Treasure Hunt also contains the world's only statistical pricing database for about 100 copywriting jobs. Chris has put together this resource to give copywriters everything they need to succeed — and nothing they don't. Chris is committed to helping copywriters focus on what's important, saving them from the time- and money-wasting Bright Shiny Object Syndrome so prevalent on the Internet.

16 Responses to Copywriters and plagiarism: When it’s ok to ‘steal smart’

  1. Rick July 20, 2017 at 7:57 am #

    Ahoy Cap’n

    (In response to your email 7/19/17)

    “People like you make it harder for people like me!, bellowed the so-called graphic designer.”

    He worked for Office Depot in the printing department and I had committed the unpardonable sin of asking that some of my larger portfolio pieces be copied.”

    Hmmm…

    It appears to me that he might have felt overwhelmed with the size of what you wanted copied and simply didn’t want to do it?

    As far as wondering if you are an elitist…Heck we ALL are in one aspect or another. It’s part of human nature. Especially when you’ve already “paid your dues” and earned the successful life you enjoy now.

    P.S. I happened to buy some Oreo cookies the other day. Found a few broken ones, maybe Nabisco needs to hire more QC people? LOL

    • Chris Marlow July 20, 2017 at 8:47 am #

      Hi Rick,

      Well I was there and it was definitely a response to the quality of my materials. I was working at the agency for 8 years and the stuff we put out won international awards. This isn’t your regular looking stuff. In fact Rick, you can see some of it under the Swipe File in the S.S. Treasure Hunt.

      So no… he really thought I was passing off someone else’s work for mine. I couldn’t prove that I wrote it, on the spot. I would have had to go home and get the contracts. But who is he to see my business? Now that might sound elitist but I intended it to LOL!

  2. Tom 'Bald Dog' Varjan July 20, 2017 at 5:28 am #

    Hi Chris,

    In my view, elitism is not about looking down on others, but simply acknowledging to yourself that you’ve passed some hurdles in life/career that many people haven’t. Tiger Woods doesn’t look down on other golfers. He’s achieved what he’s achieved with hard work. About one in a million people have Tiger’s level of dedication. Yes, talent too.

    And that self-acknowledgement is healthy. This whole elitism thing should be inspiring and encouraging to others.

    That article didn’t emphasise Home Deport per se. It emphasised the fact that a pretending freelancer, that is, an unqualified person, not a peer, accused you of plagiarism.

    Interestingly, the harshest criticism always comes from the lowest levels. Wannabe golfers, many of whom have never even touched a gold club, constantly criticise Tiger for something they make up.

    • Chris Marlow July 20, 2017 at 8:39 am #

      Tom, thank you for this! I am so in your camp. Also you were able to understand my message, that “That article didn’t emphasise Home Deport per se. It emphasised the fact that a pretending freelancer, that is, an unqualified person, not a peer, accused you of plagiarism.” Succinctly said. I would have liked to be the one to write that line in my defense. Thanks a bunch!

  3. Kate Findley July 19, 2017 at 10:22 pm #

    Great discussion of what does and doesn’t constitute plagiarism. As someone who writes both fiction and copywriting, I sometimes worry that I may have accidentally stolen someone else’s concept or phrase. But you’re right that good writing has specific qualities that make it uniquely its own, and if the person writes with passion, there’s no replicating that. As for the Office Depot comment, I can understand why people might have taken it the wrong way but as Jonathan says, these days people get offended by just about anything and you can’t possibly please everyone.

    • Chris Marlow July 19, 2017 at 10:49 pm #

      Hi Kate,

      That has been a reoccurring theme throughout many of the emails I got today, the phrase, “you can’t please everyone.” And I’m glad you liked the article and found it useful!

  4. Jonathan Dune July 19, 2017 at 7:12 pm #

    re: your email today 19JUL2017 about this post…

    G’day Chris – I always find your posts helpful and insightful. Since I’ve been around this industry a long time I can state that hearing comments like the Office Depot employee made about you being a plagiarist are laughable. I’ve seen your work and I can vouch for you.

    As far as the the lame comment from the Office Depot employee, I would have taken them to task and warned them about liable and slander. As well, I would have spoken very loudly with their manager. And… reported this person and their comments to the corporate office. Many people would even launch into a tirade on Twitter…

    In your email today you spoke of a professional female friend calling you out as “elitist” or “classist”… I call that BS! There is nothing elitist or classist about the statement you made about the employee at the Office Depot. I would thank her for sharing her “feedback” and let it go.

    In this day of “social media” seems every person gets their feelings hurt by a word and imagines hurt when there is none. Hence, the latest term spread all over the media: Snowflake.

    Many people now feel empowered to voice their opinions as fact. They look for safe zones. Claiming all at the same time to be inclusive and tolerant but that’s a ruse. I’m not buying it.

    Keep on offering your unvarnished and experienced advisory posts and stories.

    And yes, the back story may have effectively turned back the vitriol. But, no guarantees.

    Write on!

    Cheers!
    ~Jonathan Dune
    marketer/copywriter since 1973

    • Chris Marlow July 19, 2017 at 9:35 pm #

      Hi Jonathan,

      Thank you for the support! I had a lot of replies today but most wanted to send me their email personally as (unlike you), they didn’t want to post what they had to say publicly on the blog. (Could you find a better example of the erosion of our free speech?) I can report that so far the vast majority are of your sentiment and only two seemed to finger wag, but even they were nice about it. This whole incident happened way before Twitter, but you’re right… I should have gone above the fellow’s head. He did, in fact, prevent me from furthering MY business because I needed very large scanners for my oversized pieces. Quite a few of the copywriters who emailed me said they thought nothing of my Office Depot comment until I “highlighted” it. Another lesson learned, LOL!

  5. Alan Graner June 15, 2017 at 5:13 pm #

    According to the U.S. Copyright Office:

    Copyright law does not protect names, titles, or short phrases or expressions. Even
    if a name, title, or short phrase is novel or distinctive or lends itself to a play on
    words, it cannot be protected by copyright. The U.S. Copyright Office cannot register
    claims to exclusive rights in brief combinations of words such as:
    • Names of products or services
    • Names of businesses, organizations, or groups (including the names of
    performing groups)
    • Pseudonyms of individuals (including pen or stage names)
    • Titles of works
    • Catchwords, catchphrases, mottoes, slogans, or short advertising expressions

    • Chris Marlow June 15, 2017 at 5:24 pm #

      Good stuff Alan… thanks for doing the grunt work!

      I do know that we can protect short copy such as taglines, distinctive product names and so on via trademarks, service marks and such, and I think you have to pay extra to have protection across wider areas (such as in more than one state).

      And that this protection only covers one class as compared to all classes. For instance, you can pay to trademark the name of a business in the area of food and beverage and no other company in the food and beverage sector can use that name. But a company outside that sector can

      Some big businesses probably buy up outside their sectors to extend their protection, but I’m no intellectual property lawyer.

      I have, however, used uspto.gov on many occasions to research business names. A fantastic resource!

  6. Penni L. Smith June 14, 2017 at 11:52 pm #

    Sometimes it can be tough to re-phrase something that is already well-written, but it can be done if one makes the effort.
    My most recent website project, for a notary public, included a FAQ page. I looked at a number of other notaries’ sites to find out what questions to include, and what the responses should be. But I made sure I re-wrote everything. It was a challenge at times, for some of the answers were pretty simple and hard to modify. But FAQs are facts (ha, ha), and they can only be put in so many ways. There’s no excuse for copying; a good copywriter can do what needs to be done to make things suitably original.
    I do confess — I did copy the requirements directly from the State of California handbook, but I don’t think they copyright legal code — and altering it could lead to other problems.
    I still don’t understand why the clerk wouldn’t copy the material.

    • Chris Marlow June 15, 2017 at 9:34 am #

      RE: Sometimes it can be tough to re-phrase something that is already well-written, but it can be done if one makes the effort

      Oh Penni — I know what you mean. That’s why I avoid reading certain materials (like a winning magalog), before I do my concepting and lead-in. Sometimes the copy that’s out there already is near impossible to improve upon. But you’re right… in the end, your struggle will be worth it.

      As to boilerplate, I think there’s a lot of copy and paste going on but the nature of the copy is so benign, nobody cares.

  7. Rick Guffey June 14, 2017 at 11:10 am #

    Great article Chris!

    I’m curious about the future of plagiarism. When an “artificial intelligence” program (think IBM Watson or Wolfram, etc.) has the capability to generate text answers from the web as a source, then what distinguishes it from plagiarism?

    There’s a technology “arms race” taking place between using natural language processing to detect and “prevent” uses of text that are considered plagiarism, and the opposing effort to create question-answering and semantic search capabilities that range over all collective text on the web and return summarized, paraphrased, synthesized, and re-narrated results.

    This looks like a growing “gray area” with a clash between conflicting values.

    • Chris Marlow June 14, 2017 at 11:35 am #

      You open a real can of worms, Rick! Since AI is such a big disruptive business I don’t think ethics is going to win this one. Plus this AI-crafted copywriting is already being pushed out to info searchers. Furthermore, cognitive content tech companies are even going deeper than most are aware of. For instance, one is working on a platform of AI/cognitive content storytelling.

      I’ve been watching this closely for many months, especially the leading cognitive content company, Persado. My feeling is that plagiarism may be redefined as accepting that machines are not discerning, and therefore not subject to ethical constraints. How can we compare human decision-making to AI? And while you could create a very strong argument for and against, who has more money to fight the fight, and a bigger incentive for profits?

      That’s one of the reasons I’m moving to a new model of coaching. (Tease, tease.) Deets coming soon!

  8. Barbara Hales June 14, 2017 at 10:39 am #

    Very helpful and well-done article. While we can all inspire each other, we each need to put out the necessary work.

    • Chris Marlow June 14, 2017 at 10:44 am #

      Well put, and pithy, Barbara. Thanks for your stamp of approval! 🙂

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